SAN FRANCISCO – Tesla topped Ford Motor in stock market value Monday, but a new study claims Tesla is eating Ford’s dust in the race toward driverless cars.
Uber is puttering way back of the pack, according to the study’s rankings.
The study by Navigant Consulting, a Chicago firm with deep roots in the auto industry, ranked 18 companies that are developing a “full stack” of hardware and software for completely autonomous cars, casting judgments on their progress and prospects.
Four traditional auto companies ended up on top: Ford, General Motors, Renault-Nissan and Daimler.
The three California companies on the list – Tesla, Uber and Google’s Waymo – lagged for various reasons.
“In raw technology, Waymo in particular, they’re on the cutting edge of this technology,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant. “But we’ve taken a broader look, not just at the technology, but the future trajectory of autonomous vehicles and what it’s going to take to commercialize them and be successful.”
Waymo has been testing self-driving cars for years on the roads in California and other states, with 2 million miles of experience.
The companies were ranked on a long list of criteria that includes technology, strategy and vision. But high priority is given to the ability to manufacture, sell, market and distribute driverless vehicles, so the traditional automakers naturally have a head start.
Tesla ranked 12th. The company has a strong vision for the future, and Autopilot “is arguably the best driver assist system in production right now,” Abuelsamid said.
But, he said, the company lags in sensor technology.
“Lidar is the single biggest reason,” according to Abuelsamid. Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk has set himself apart from all other autonomous-driving developers by eschewing lidar, a sensor that bounces laser beams off objects to create images that supplement cameras and radar. Musk said Tesla doesn’t need lidar; critics say lidar is expensive and Musk is trying to keep costs low.
Tesla uses a suite of sensors – cameras, ultrasound and radars. Other companies use those too, but add lidar to the mix.
Because Tesla’s long-term viability is yet to be determined, it also ranked low on staying power. Tesla declined to comment on the study.
Uber, ranked 16th, “is an interesting case,” Abuelsamid said. “They have a pretty strong vision, but like the other non-auto players, they don’t have sales, marketing and distribution beyond their ride hailing app.”
It won’t be hard for automakers to replicate the Uber app, he said, but it’ll be hard for Uber to assemble a massive fleet of autonomous cars to replace human drivers who maintain their own cars.
“Their expenses are likely to explode, not get lower,” he said.
He added that Uber has yet to show its automated vehicles are reliable, citing a video of an Uber car equipped with driverless technology running a red light in San Francisco as the most familiar counter example. Uber is also testing self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsburgh, Tucson, Ariz., and other locations.
Waymo’s technology is the most advanced, according to the rankings, but Abuelsamid said “they have no production capacity and for now no production deals.” Waymo is tied for seventh place with Volvo.
The study is a snapshot in time, and Navigant noted it could change dramatically over the years as partnerships are formed, new players come on the scene and the leaders either take advantage of their strengths, or don’t.
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