The Self-Driving Car Timeline – Predictions from the Top 11 Global Automakers

The Self-Driving Car Timeline - Predictions from the Top 11 Global Automakers

A company by company examination of the top car makers public investment and statements by their top executives makes it clear that most car companies are betting that self-driving will be inevitable, and they’re all jumping in with investment and initiatives.

With billions of dollars in R&D and acquisitions, there’s plenty of fodder for media hype, but there haven’t been many concerted efforts to bring together the facts and answer fundamental questions, such as:

  • What do companies like Ford, GM, BMW and others have as their self-driving car timelines?
  • What have the major automakers invested in their self-driving initiatives, in terms of internal investment and acquisitions?

In this article, we set out to collect the facts and CEO quotes to determine the self-driving timelines of the world’s 11 larges automakers. All businesses and industries will be impacted by the impending transitions in autonomous vehicle tech, and we aimed to put the most relevant facts together for business leaders and auto enthusiasts alike.

First, we’ll break down what “self-driving” means (in it’s 5 different levels of autonomy). The rest of the article will be an ordered list of the 11 top automakers, followed by their predictions, executive quotes, and any noteworthy financial data about their self-driving initiatives.

Defining “Self-Driving” in Levels

“Self-driving” is a rather vague term with a vague meaning. For this article, we’ll be referencing the “self-driving levels” as defined by the SAE International, which can be viewed below:

SAE's levels of autonomy

Source: SAE International – Levels of Driving Automation

This means the vehicle can safely drive itself under specific conditions but the driver will need to quickly intervene when called on. This is a car that could drive itself on the highway while you watch a movie but would need you to take control when you get off the highway. Some may view this as only partially self-driving.

  • Level 1 automation some small steering or acceleration tasks are performed by the car without human intervention, but everything else is fully under human control
  • Level 2 automation is like advance cruise control or original autopilot system on some Tesla vehicles, the car can automatically take safety actions but the driver needs to stay alert at the wheel
  • Level 3 automation still requires a human driver, but the human is able to put some “safety-critical functions” to the vehicle, under certain traffic or environmental conditions. This poses some potential dangers as humans pass the major tasks of driving to or from the car itself, which is why some car companies (Ford included) are interested in jumping directly to level 4
  • Level 4 automation is a car that can drive itself almost all the time without any human input, but might be programmed not to drive in unmapped areas or during severe weather. This is a car you could sleep in.
  • Level 5 automation means full automation in all conditions

Since these levels don’t mean much to people outside the industry, car makers often don’t talk about their technology in these specific SAE terms. The big potential promise for people is either car that drive themselves for a large part of a person’s highway commute (level 3) or cars that can drive themselves almost as long as you live in a covered metropolitan area (level 4).

As you read the rest of this article, it will be useful to understand that most executives referring to “self-driving” are referring to levels 3 and 4. Whenever possible, we distinguish between what kind of self-driving a specific executive is speaking about (i.e. Highway autonomy, or full metropolitan autonomy).

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