When it comes to self-driving cars, Tesla is often the first name that springs to mind. While most manufacturers now offer semi-autonomous systems, such as lane control, and autonomous features such as emergency braking, Tesla’s Autopilot is streets ahead with its fully integrated setup. While still a work in progress, it’s undoubtedly one of the smartest projects out there today.
Autopilot currently offers lane centering, adaptive cruise control and self-parking, plus an autosteer function for automated lane changing. There’s also a new ‘smart summon’ capability, so you can have your car come to you from a garage or parking spot using the mobile app. Launched in 2014, the system has come a long way but stops short of full driverless status – a fact Tesla itself acknowledges, given the legal, regulatory and technical hurdles yet to overcome.
Drivers are still required to keep their hands on the steering wheel for certain manoeuvres, such as at major junctions and intersections, with the hands-off function disabled in the latest version. This may feel like a backwards step for some, but clearly is a nod to ongoing safety concerns.
Less well-known, Cadillac’s Super Cruise is in many respects Tesla Autopilot’s closest comparison. Lurking under the automotive radar in 2017/18, due to the fact that it was only available with the CT6 Sedan, the recent announcement that the technology will be rolled out across the entire Cadillac range from 2020, is a game changer.
By combining cameras, sensors and mapping data, Super Cruise does allow drivers to take their hands off the wheel during highway driving. This bold approach has netted the brand several awards, including Popular Science’s Best of What’s New Award 2018 and Autoblog’s Technology of the Year Award 2019.
Perhaps in a direct challenge to Tesla and its recent Autopilot changes, Cadillac claims that Super Cruise represents ‘the industry’s first true hands-free driving technology’.
The beginnings of autonomous driving at Mercedes-Benz date back more than 30 years, and the Programme for European Traffic with Highest Efficiency and Unprecedented Safety (Prometheus) project.
Launched in 1986, Prometheus was ahead of its time and had the lofty goal of establishing the foundations for the networked mobility of tomorrow.
It is a collaborative R&D initiative involving a community of major European automotive manufacturers and suppliers, as well as numerous scientific institutes.
Its findings have long since been integrated into a wealth of everyday technologies, such as Distronic Plus adaptive cruise control and the Pre-Safe passenger system.
Mercedes-Benz has continued to experiment ever since. In August 2013, an adapted autonomous S-Class model completed a 100-kilometre journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim in Germany, navigating high-density traffic and complex traffic situations along the way.
It currently offers adaptive cruise control and lane-centre steering across several models and is adding upgraded Active Distance Assist Distronic and Active Steering Assist this year.
Mercedes-Benz plans to take it to the next level with Drive Pilot, a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) level 3* automated driving system, which aims to combine two transformational automation benefits. These are a push for a safer world with fewer car crashes thanks to a dramatic reduction in human error; and an enhanced experience, where cars are no longer just a means to get from A to B, but also a space for productivity, relaxation and socialising.
Daimler and BMW
In July 2019, Daimler –Mercedes-Benz’s parent company – announced a partnership with BMW. These two giants of the automotive sector are now pooling their R&D expertise into automated driving, with the aim of being one of the first car companies to successfully enter the mass consumer market.
Their current target: to install the proprietary technologies into passenger car systems by 2024. The partnership will focus on jointly developing next-generation SAE level 4 driver assistance systems, especially for automated highway driving and parking. The two companies will each implement the technologies in their respective products, with the project calling on the combined talents of around 1,200 specialists.
Another one to watch, and already a recognised industry disruptor, is Google, with its Waymo project. Originally an in-house Google project overseen by Sebastian Thrun, co-inventor of Google Street View, it morphed into a standalone self-driving tech company in 2016.
The following year, Waymo piloted a self-driving taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona before launching the Waymo One commercial self-driving car service app in the same city. Unlike the high-profile automotive manufacturers, Waymo is solely focusing on the technology and the development of systems designed for installation in every make of car.
In 2019, its business model has gained momentum. In April, Waymo struck a deal with US vehicle assembler Magna to turn Jaguar I-PACE and Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans into SAE level 4 autonomous vehicles. In June, it entered a partnership with Renault and Nissan, to help both firms develop self-driving vehicle ranges for the French and Japanese markets.
There are other players in Waymo’s space too. Also in June, tech firm Aurora Innovation signed a similar deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, while Volkswagen and Ford are understood to be in advanced discussions with Argo AI.
Whether it’s the manufacturers like Tesla, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz on their home turf, or manufacturers partnering with tech firms like Waymo, the race to achieve full automation is pedal to the metal.
* ‘SAE levels’ refer to a globally recognised system of standards for defining the degree of automation achieved. There are six levels, from zero automation to full automation.