The Year of Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, or robocars. These are vehicles that can sense their environment and operate accordingly without human intervention. Almost all of the revered automobile manufacturing companies produce self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles.

The list includes the likes of Daimler AG, General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen, Tesla, Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, and more. While the variants may differ from one to another in terms of the car technology they leverage, there is no denying that the market of self-driving cars is growing at an astounding rate.

The Market Size

According to the latest available numbers, the global autonomous vehicle market had a size of US $54.21 billion in 2019. Projections believe that the market will experience a growth rate of more than 39% between 2020 and 2030 to reach a size of more than USD $2 trillion. In numbers of units sold, the 2019 sales figure of 1.4 million will reach 58 million units in 2030. That’s a growth of more than 40%.

In terms of the car technology backing them, self-driving cars can control the trajectory, plan motions, and create three-dimensional maps of their surroundings. What empowers cars to have these qualities is a wide variety of innovative technology suites.

The technologies include light detection and ranging capabilities along with that of radio detection and ranging. These cars draw their strength from the developments in AI and IoT technologies.

While these sophisticated technologies have made autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars an efficient reality, there are reasons why their demand is expected to grow at such a high-paced rate. A self-driving car has a far reduced risk of experiencing a road crash. The safety and security features are top-notch and it is highly beneficial for mobility-challenged individuals as well as those who do not know how to drive.

2021 in Focus

Although the technology making self-driving cars a reality has been around for years, and the sales have been picking up substantially, 2021 is what many experts consider to be the year of autonomous vehicles. It is the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced the world to increase technology enhancements at an unmatched speed. From the implementation of 5G, to the advent of sophisticated renewable energy technology, innovation has sped up dramatically.

Self-driving cars are no exception.

Driverless Ride-Hailing Services

One of the most prominent examples of the expedited arrival of autonomous vehicles has been the Waymo minivans. Its self-driving minivans have been facilitating paid passengers to travel in and around Phoenix for more than a year now. Many of these trips are fully contactless, where there are no human safety drivers on standby to take charge of the steering wheel in case anything goes wrong.

While Waymo One, the Robo-taxi service, did complete 100,000 trips in 2020 traveling 70,000 miles on US roads, 2021 proved to be the inflection point. It was only a few weeks prior to 2021 that Waymo launched its fully driverless ride-hailing service for anyone to access. While, earlier, very few people were allowed to test the service – anyone living in Phoenix can now download the app and hail a self-driving car.

While it is true that Phoenix roads are safer with moderate weather year round, it is also true that there are nearly 100 suburbs and metro areas in the US that have similar characteristics. One could reasonably expect Waymo to expand its services to these areas, including Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and more. The effect would be multiplicative – as many players would draw inspiration from Waymo.

Another big-league player in the area is Amazon’s Zoox. Its autonomous robo-taxis appeared in the market on December 14th, 2020. Zoox is a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle that comes without a steering wheel but can go up to 75 mph and run 16 hours on a single charge.

Leading Self-Driving Car Manufacturers

Tesla has always been a pioneer and forerunner in the industry. It started with commercializing its Autopilot capabilities in 2015. Since then, its car technology has been evolving steadily. Its advanced sensor coverage with 8 cameras and 12 ultrasonic sensors gives the vehicles 360 degrees of visibility at up to 250 meters of range.

Its latest Hardware 3 onboard computer can process more than 40 times the data than it could do in its previous generation system. It has also introduced cutting-edge safety features with automatic emergency braking, side collision and front-collision warning, and auto high beams that adjust to high or low when needed.

Another company that has leveraged Artificial Intelligence skillfully to develop self-driving technology conducive to a variety of resistive road scenarios across the US and China is Pony.ai. In 2021, Pony.ai’s technological enhancements have come to a level where it can offer scalability to the entire industry. Pony.ai’s learnings and algorithms are appropriate for generalization across multiple vehicle platforms and applications. From all-electric passenger Robotaxis to long-distance freight trucks, the technology can support them all.

Another industry stalwart that has worked substantially towards self-driving vehicles is Apple. Its internal project, Project Titan, began working in 2016. It has heavily invested in machine learning and automation. Now, in 2021, they have the third-largest self-driving test vehicle fleet in California.

Kia-Hyundai has invested US$40 billion between 2019 and 2024 to develop new models and technologies for electric and driverless cars. They are now ready to demonstrate autonomous driving technologies on the 5G network, in collaboration with Samsung Electronics and KT, a Korean telecommunications firm.

Ford also aspires to introduce a completely autonomous car soon. It was in 2018 that the automotive giant declared that they would bring self-driving vehicles to the streets by 2021. Staying tuned to its goal – backed by a separate business worth $4 billion – the company has also finished developing a full-fledged testing facility in Miami.

Audi has also been exploring NVIDIA’s artificial intelligence technology to power their driverless cars. Owned by Volkswagen, Audi introduced a full-fledged autonomous driving division in 2017. 

The Future Path

As one can see, almost every major car manufacturer is investing in autonomous vehicles. With the pandemic boosting up the demand for contactless driving, self-driving cars are the centerpiece of the auto industry now. Several bottlenecks need to be solved, however, to become pervasive and the indisputable first choice for auto buyers. Components costs are still on the higher side. Frequent software and hardware updates make the technology vulnerable to cyber attacks. However, with regulatory bodies investing more in digitization, the adoption of advanced infrastructures in smart cities, the high usage of smart gadgets, and increasing per capita income, the market has never looked more promising for these vehicles.

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