40+ Corporations Working On Autonomous Vehicles
Amazon experimenting with autonomous package delivery
- Filed patent in 2015 for autonomous lane-switching technology
- Invested in autonomous tech startup operated by Google and Tesla veterans
- Autonomous delivery robot Amazon Scout currently making the rounds in Washington State
- Working on a multi-function autonomous vehicle with Toyota
Over the last decade, Amazon has spent billions of dollars working on finding ever-better solutions to the last-mile problem in delivery. It’s built its own fleet of cargo jets, explored delivery by drone in the form of “Prime Air,” and more. More recently, an increasing percentage of that investment has been directed toward autonomous vehicle technology.
In September 2019, Amazon said that it planned to put 100,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2030, with deliveries starting as soon as 2021. The US technology giant plans to buy these vehicles from Rivian, an electric automaker in which Amazon has invested $440M. Amazon revealed a prototype of these delivery vehicles in January 2020.
Amazon’s investment in Rivian came on the heels of its deal in February 2019 with Aurora Innovation, an autonomous tech startup run by former Google and Tesla executives that pioneered autonomous driving teams at both giants.
An Amazon company spokesperson told Wired about the investment:
“Autonomous technology has the potential to help make the jobs of our employees and partners safer and more productive, whether it’s in a fulfillment center or on the road, and we’re excited about the possibilities.”
The Rivian and Aurora investments aren’t the only autonomous technology play that Amazon is pursuing. In January 2019, the company introduced the Amazon Scout, a 6-wheeled electric-powered delivery robot. These robots are currently making deliveries in a Washington neighborhood and in Southern California’s Irvine area during daylight hours, Monday through Friday, under the supervision of a human associate.
For Amazon, these developments are years in the making.
The company initially announced that it would be getting involved in autonomous vehicles at CES 2018 through a partnership with Toyota. The demo vehicle, known as the e-Palette, was designed as a multi-function, autonomous minivan to move goods, people, or even a mobile office. The plan is to debut up to 20 of its e-Palette vehicles at the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympic Games in Tokyo to transport athletes.
In 2015, Amazon explored a trial with DHL and Audi that involved delivering customers’ parcels to the trunks of their automobiles.
In the same year, Amazon filed for a patent for a system that helps autonomous cars navigate roadways, especially complex, reversible lanes, and even pick which lane to use depending on current traffic estimates — an early indicator of the company’s ambitions in this space and AVs’ importance to Amazon when it comes to lowering delivery costs. The company was granted the patent in early 2017.
In April 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon had built a team more than a year prior devoted to focusing on driverless vehicle technology.
We’ve written more on Amazon’s self-driving vehicle patent activity here.
Apple is starting to catch up
- Building employee transportation network; currently has 70 self-driving vehicles on the road in California
- Some setbacks for Apple’s self-driving car program, Project Titan, in 2016
- Hired former Waymo and NASA engineer in June 2018 to head Project Titan
- Acquired Drive.ai in June 2019
In January 2019, Apple cut more than 200 employees from its self-driving car initiative, Project Titan, in what was internally described as a “restructuring.” Five months later, Apple confirmed that it had acquired Drive.ai, a self-driving startup that is backed by more than $77M in funding and was valued at $200M in 2017. The move is reported to be an “acqui-hire,” with Apple’s interests lying more with Drive.ai’s talent than its proprietary technology.
For Apple, the move appears to be an effort to get its own autonomous vehicle efforts back on track. Project Titan has suffered setbacks since as early 2016, which marked the departure of project head Steve Zadesky and a rumored hiring freeze, as well as strategic uncertainty about the vision of the project.
In July 2016, Apple selected its legendary hardware executive Bob Mansfield to lead its effort, in addition to hiring Dan Dodge, the founder and former CEO of QNX. The hires indicated a shift in strategy, with Project Titan reportedly deciding to prioritize the development of an autonomous driving system, while deprioritizing development of an electric vehicle.
In April 2017, new details seemed to confirm this pivot: Apple documents revealed the company was building an “automated system,” and the company hired robotics experts from NASA to boost its driverless efforts.
Apple spent 2018 building out the beginnings of its self-driving car fleet, with 70 vehicles officially on the road and registered with the California DMV as of September of that year. This reportedly made Apple the owner of the third-largest autonomous test vehicle fleet in the state, behind GM Cruise and Waymo. Apple’s test fleet logged a total of 80,739 miles of autonomous driving time from April 2017 through November 2018.
In May, it was reported that Apple was working to provide autonomous cars for employee transit between corporate facilities. The Volkswagen T6 transporter vans slated to be used will feature a human driver present in case of any issues with the self-driving technology in the car.
In June 2018, Apple brought on Jaime Waydo, a senior engineer with experience at both Waymo and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to work on Project Titan.
In late 2018, Apple poached a designer and vehicle engineer from Tesla, a move that suggested that it may be reevaluating Project Titan’s move away from building an autonomous vehicle. The company has also built prototypes of an electric van, Apple Insider reported in February 2019.
Aptiv logs 100,000 rides and sets sights on China
- Autonomous driving operations underway in Boston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Singapore
- Completed 100,000+ self-driving taxi rides in Las Vegas in collaboration with Lyft
In February 2020, self-driving software company Aptiv and ridesharing company Lyft reached a major milestone: the companies crossed 100,000 rides of its autonomous passenger service in Las Vegas. The company now services over 3,400 spots in Las Vegas, including popular locations such as the Los Angeles Convention Center and McCarren International Airport.
The program features a fleet of BMW 540s, retrofitted with Aptiv’s autonomous tech but with a safety driver present in the car. Reception to the program has been positive: Lyft reports that 98% of the passengers who took the rides gave the service a 5-star rating.
The Lyft partnership is just one of several programs that Aptiv has underway with its self-driving software. The company currently has autonomous driving operations in 4 markets: Boston, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh, and Singapore. In spring 2019, the company announced it was adding a fifth city, Shanghai.
The expansion into China is a major strategic move for Aptiv. China is expected to account for more than two-thirds of autonomous miles driven worldwide by 2040, according to McKinsey.
Aptiv’s President of Autonomous Mobility Karl Iagnemma said:
“The long-term opportunity in China is off the charts… For Aptiv, it’s always been a question of not ‘if’ but ‘when’ we’re going to enter the Chinese market.”
These initiatives have translated into strong financial results for Aptiv. Over the course of 2019, the company’s stock posted gains of more than 50%.
The last few years have witnessed a number of transformations at Aptiv. In May 2017, the company, then known as Delphi Automotive, spun off of its powertrain segment and rebranded itself as a new company: Delphi Technologies. A few months later, that company was renamed Aptiv. The rebrand was intended to focus the company’s software, electrical components, and other work on autonomous vehicles.
In October 2017, Delphi acquired autonomous software development shop nuTonomy, Inc. for $400M upfront. The goal of the acquisition was to get more than 60 Aptiv-branded autonomous cars onto public roads by the end of the year. The acquired startup had a strong track record: in 2016, nuTonomy integrated self-driving car technology into a ride-hailing service for the very first time in Singapore. It then also became the first to test such technology on public streets in Boston, Massachusetts. In April 2018 (after the acquisition), nuTonomy was officially named a finalist for Fast Company’s 2018 World Changing Ideas Awards.
The company has also partnered with Quanergy Systems to develop and deploy solid-state lidar, which could dramatically lower the cost of these systems. (Here are some other startups working on improved sensing and vision solutions.)
Audi unveils its autonomous A8
- First auto company to deploy hands-free driving
- Flagship self-driving A8 model approved for street driving in Europe
- Former Tesla Autopilot manager hired as CTO of self-driving tech subsidiary
Audi has made big promises about its plans for autonomous and electric vehicles. The German brand has said it plans to spend close to $16B on self-driving and sustainable tech by 2023.
Those efforts are primarily being undertaken by Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID), Audi’s self-driving technology outfit, first launched in 2017. The operation, which is based in Munich and boasts more than 200 employees, is currently testing 12 autonomous vehicles on public roads in its home city.
Audi chief technology officer Alexandre Haag has compared AID to GM’s self-driving unit, Cruise, and Ford’s unit, Argo. But Haag is pragmatic about the realities of getting autonomous fleets deployed, given how much rests on the dependability — and safety — of the technology.
“Getting to 90 percent [in perception] is fairly easy. Getting to 95 percent starts to get interesting. And then you still need to go way beyond that. Nine point nine nine nine nine… Adding each nine is ten times harder. When you’re at 95 percent, you’ve just scratched the surface.”
Audi is starting to bring in new technology partners in an effort to expedite its autonomous timelines. In December 2018, the company announced that AID would partner with Luminar, a Silicon Valley manufacturer of LiDAR sensors and perception software that also works with Volvo and Toyota.
Audi is also part of the German consortium — which includes Daimler and BMW — that bought Nokia’s HERE precision mapping assets for $3.1B. HERE has made strides in designing an open specification for vehicle sensor data collected and transmitted to the cloud by connected vehicles.
Audi has revealed several autonomous vehicle prototypes derived from its A7 and RS 7 models, including consumer-oriented test vehicles. In July 2016, news broke that Audi was joining many automotive peers by setting up its own advanced subsidiary, SDS Company, to focus on self-driving tech. In April 2017, Audi hired former Tesla Autopilot program manager Alexandre Haag as the unit’s CTO.
Audi plans to commercialize its technology in its next-generation A8 flagship, although the vehicle’s SAE Level 3 automation will have limited availability, pending regulatory approval. The luxury brand operates under the umbrella of the Volkswagen Group, so developments within the division could have broader implications going forward.
While a fully autonomous fleet may still be a ways away for Audi, the company has been among the most aggressive at introducing semi-autonomous options to the market.
In July 2017, Audi unveiled its new flagship A8, which has a controversial autonomous driving feature that lets drivers fully take their hands off the wheel while the car drives up to 37 MPH. At the time, it was the first vehicle in production that could actually allow its users to “drive” hands-free.
The 2019 A8 model includes an enhanced suite of semi-autonomous features, including adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation capabilities, as well as improved object recognition.
As of publication, the Audi A8 with the full complement of self-driving features has only been approved for release and made street-legal in Europe, not in the US.
Baidu’s Apollo platform logs 1M+ autonomous miles driven and 150+ partners
- Built “Android of autonomous driving” to support development of self-driving tech
- 3M autonomous kilometers driven in urban environments
- Opened AI research lab in Silicon Valley
The Chinese autonomous vehicle market represents a huge opportunity — $500B by 2030, according to McKinsey. Companies around the world are jockeying to capture that market, including Chinese tech giants Tencent and Alibaba. But only 1 contender can claim nearly 2M miles of autonomous driving: Chinese search company Baidu.
The main hub of Baidu’s automation efforts is Apollo, its open-source autonomous driving platform, which originally launched in 2017. Baidu’s COO has called Apollo the “Android of the autonomous driving industry.” More than 130 partners worldwide use the service, including automakers Chevy, Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen, as well as technology company Intel, according to Baidu.
Baidu first began testing its open-source Apollo software system on the open road in 2017. In 2018, the company received approval from the Chinese government to start testing Apollo on 33 different roads spanning 65 miles around Beijing. The Beijing Municipal Commission of Transport also granted Baidu its first batch of T4 test permits — the highest level of autonomous vehicle clearance currently available in China. The T4 permits let Baidu operate its vehicles in challenging urban environments, such as tunnels and school zones. In January 2019, Baidu unveiled Apollo Enterprise, a new line that will focus primarily on use cases including highway driving, valet parking, autonomous mini-buses, and mapping technology.
By December 2019, Baidu had 300 autonomous vehicles on the road and had logged over 3M kilometers (roughly 1.8M miles) of urban driving. The same month, Baidu received licenses to test its fleet of autonomous robot taxis in certain areas of Beijing.
Baidu has also entered a partnership with Zhejiang Geely Holding Group to equip Geely cars with self-driving technology provided by Baidu, including Apollo’s DuerOS. Tesla partnered with Baidu in January 2020 to use its mapping data for its vehicles in China.
In April 2014, Baidu partnered with BMW to develop a semi-autonomous prototype. The partners tested their technologies on highways in China but parted ways in November 2016 following disagreements about strategy.
The search giant has also opened a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence research lab, although Andrew Ng (its chief AI scientist) departed the company in March 2017. Baidu also intends to spin off its self-driving unit once it matures (similar to Alphabet with Waymo).
For years, Apollo has been used by chipmakers and small startups to kickstart work in self-driving cars, but big corporates — including Nvidia, Bosch, Daimler, and Ford — have also found it useful.