In the first of a series of articles about large industrial companies, we list 20 of the leading automakers in the world in order of their last reported annual revenue amount, and highlight some of their more interesting developments in autonomous technologies.
Automakers are have long been the largest market for industrial robotics and automation systems, but also, more recently, the vehicles they produce have become more robotic.
The design and development of road vehicles are becoming increasingly an exercise in developing computing technology – both hardware and software. Add to that the growing importance of artificial intelligence to run the advanced driver assistance systems that many new cars already have.
ADAS is self-driving or autonomous technology in all but name. A full list of the features of ADAS is available elsewhere on this website, but some of them are autonomous emergency braking to avoid front-end collisions, self-parking, and cruise control, which even cars from a couple of decades ago contain.
This trend looks like it will continue – cars will become more computerised, autonomous and, as mentioned earlier, robotic.
Moreover, the growth in sales of electric cars – partly due to innovations and advances in electric vehicle technology, combined with governments and regulators becoming more strict about pollution – are likely to continue to a point where within a couple of decades, the majority of new cars sold be well be powered by electric engines rather than petrol engines.
So, that said, it’s certainly an interesting – maybe even historic – time for the automotive industry. Not only does it look like the combustion engine – which has been at the heart of road vehicles for a century – could be on the way out, even humans are being edged out as nominal drivers of the vehicles.
The list below is not perfectly accurate – it’s based on the most recent available figures. Moreover, this time next year, who’s to say that Apple and Google won’t feature prominently on the list?
Both the computer technology giants are developing AI systems for self-driving cars, with Google even demonstrating it in its own designed small car.
But this list shows a fairly broad view of what the market is like now, and is intended as an impression rather than a scientific analysis. Numbers are generally rounded up, and the order is approximate at best.
Production output (2015): 17 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $253 billion
Annual profit (2016): $21 billion
Number of employees: 349,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Toyota is partnering with a number of academic institutions, startups, and established companies to create an ecosystem for its autonomous, connected and electric vehicles.
The Japanese auto giant has poured millions into setting up its Toyota Research Institute in the US, and is developing a range of forward-looking technologies with MIT.
Perhaps the most interesting among the partnerships are Toyota’s efforts to make blockchain integral to new cars. Blockchain’s proponents might say the technology is the most effective way to secure autonomous and connected cars from hackers.
Toyota is also broadening its interest in robotics, helping to build exoskeletons for the elderly and infirm. It is also working with NTT to create a global connectivity network – a sort of cloud for connected cars.
Production output (2016): 6 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $121 billion
Annual profit (2016): $2 billion
Number of employees: 627,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Like several of the leading automotive companies, including Toyota, Volkswagen has partnered with chipmaker Nvidia.
Chips – microprocessors and microcontrollers – already play a critical role in most new cars, and their importance will only grow, which must have been one of the factors in Qualcomm’s acquisition of NXP.
Qualcomm has been a leading supplier of chips for Apple’s mobile devices, and NXP was one of the leading suppliers of chips to the automotive market.
Volkswagen, which also owns Audi among other brands, has also entered a partnership with BMW to develop the two auto giants’ knowledge of quantum computing, because quantum computing is said to promise far greater processing power than current, “classical”, binary systems.
Production output / “sales” (2016): 3 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $175 billion
Annual profit (2016): $10 billion
Number of employees: 284,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Daimler of course makes all types of road vehicles, not least prominent of which is is line of trucks, and it may be trucks that become autonomous sooner than smaller vehicles.
The average age of a truck driver is somewhere between 40 and 50 years, which means there’ll be a lot of people looking to retire in a decade or two.
Combine that with younger people’s reluctance to take up truck-driving as a job choice, and you’ve got a good example of an area that could do with autonomous driving technology.
But Daimler has far more broader ambitions for its self-driving tech than that, having been the first company in the world to invent a motor vehicle in the mid-1880s.
4. General Motors
Production output (2015): 10 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $166 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2016): $9 billion
Number of employees: 215,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: General Motors has become the first automaker to produce an autonomous car using mass manufacturing methods, according to its own observation.
It’s also possible that GM was the first to introduce connected cars on its own cloud platform, called OnStar, which is said to have the most number of cars of any similar car connectivity platform.
The company appears to be anxiously awaiting the decisions of the lawmakers in the US, who are currently evaluating the whole subject of autonomous cars.
Like many automakers, GM may argue that the technology is capable of autonomous mobility – it just needs to be properly regulated. GM seems ready for when it is.
Production output (2008): 6 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $152 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2016): $5 billion
Number of employees: 201,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: All of the big and many of the small auto companies, including Ford, are intensely researching autonomous driving technology.
There is so much to consider – it’s a completely different motoring paradigm. And Ford has been changing its outlook on the market using the prisms of autonomous technology and artificial intelligence.
The company has created a new team to develop its robotics and AI knowledge, and has been demonstrating a range of manoeuvres based on its learnings using its Fusion cars.
Ford, too, is looking to the lawmakers to articulate the ethics and regulations around self-driving vehicles, and clarify who or what will be held responsible in the event of accidents involving autonomous cars.
Production output (2016): 6 million units
Annual revenue (2014): $101 billion
Annual profit (2014): $4 billion
Number of employees: 142,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Nissan has been testing and demonstrating its ProPilot autonomous technology.
The company is part of the Renault group, but between the two brands, it seems Nissan is taking the lead in self-driving technology.
But both companies are planning to launch an autonomous car-sharing service within 10 years.
Nissan already has a successful electric car, the Leaf, into which it has been packing more autonomous abilities. Indeed the next-generation of the Leaf will feature ProPilot.
Production output (2015): 5 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $129 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2016): $3 billion
Number of employees: 208,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Honda, as many readers will know, is the company which owns Asimo, the humanoid robot that looks like an astronaut.
What it has learned through developing Asimo may or may not be useful in its development of cars, since Asimo was always more concerned about climbing stairs, and cars are not really expected to do that.
But Honda has been demonstrating new concepts for electric and autonomous vehicles, including the one shown in the picture above.
Like most established automakers, Honda is playing catch-up with tech companies like Google in the area of AI, but it’s committed itself to reaching level 4 autonomy by 2025.
Production output (2016): 2.5 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $108 billion
Annual profit (2016): $8 billion
Number of employees: 125,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: BMW has a couple of advantages in terms of vehicles suited to the new emerging technologies.
The German automaker owns Mini, the classic small car, and it has quickly established its i3 and i8 electric vehicles in the market.
Any or all of these cars are prime candidates for autonomy as they are the most likely to appeal to the new generation of motorists, who are likely to hire cars more often and generally prefer electric engines.
BMW is reducing its spending on equipment levels so it has more money to invest in research and development, with electric powertrains, autonomous technology and connectivity being the key areas of expenditure going forward.
Production output / “sales” (2016): 3 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $54 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2015): $1.4 billion
Number of employees: 170,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: The Peugeot group also owns the Citroen and DS brands, both of which are probably more likely to appeal to the eco-friendly market.
Older readers may remember that Citroen used to have a reputation among some as a maker of cars for vegetarians, and was generally seen as less polluting than others. Whether that’s true or not is unimportant because that was a long time ago and the car models have changed completely. But the image and impression remains.
DS, on the other hand, is seen as a more modern brand and would probably be well-suited to electric engines.
Peugeot is said to have been a slow starter in the autonomous race, but has agreed a key partnership with nuTonomy, the developer of software for self-driving cars.
Production output (2015): 5 million units
Annual revenue / “sales” (2015): $80 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2015): $5.7 billion
Number of employees: 112,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Hyundai showcased its autonomous concept car, Ioniq, at the Geneva motor show recently.
The company has been testing the self-driving vehicle at its base in South Korea, and has already started promoting its autonomous tech in its other models.
Interestingly, Hyundai emphasises that future drivers – or humans who happen to be in the car while it drives itself – will be using a lot of augmented reality technology.
This is something many of the other auto companies are also preparing for, as the idea of augmented windows or virtual dashboards mean that vehicles can be updated and reconfigured much more easily on an ongoing basis.
Production output (2014): 5.6 million units
Annual revenue (2014): $102 billion
Annual profit (2015): $6.3 billion
Number of employees: 145,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: The Chinese government is said to be busy building the world’s largest 5G network, which some say will be what is necessary for the generation of autonomous, electric and connected cars to operate most effectively.
Moreover, Chinese investors are said to be highly interested in autonomous car technology, and e-commerce giant Alibaba as set up a $160 billion ‘internet of cars” fund for the technology.
Meanwhile, SAIC – which is state-owned – has acquired permission to test its autonomous vehicles in California, in the US.
The company has also managed to attract top talent from General Motors to its design team, which may be a sign that it’s quite interested in the US market.
Production output / “sales” (2012): 1.1 million units
Annual revenue (2012): $62.9 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2012): $1.3 billion
Number of employees: 161,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Dongfeng is another of the companies established by the Chinese government, but has a crucial partnership with Renault.
Together, the two companies have been testing self-driving cars in China and are likely to take them to Europe as well. But then, China being the largest auto market in the world by far, it might be tempting for Dongfeng to concentrate solely on domestic demand.
Particularly as electric car sales have been growing at exponential rates in the last couple of years, and Dongfeng has a number of electric car models.
Also, the company recently reached a number of deals relating to in-car autonomous technology displays and operations.
Production output (2016): 3.2 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $58.6 billion
Annual profit (2016): $4 billion
Number of employees: 127,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Apparently Renault believes the appearance of autonomous cars on the consumer market is imminent.
Or, if not imminent, the company’s bosses believe full autonomous cars will arrive before electric cars because the self-driving technology is capable enough.
And electric cars don’t seem to sell as well in Europe and the US as they do in China – even though the company recently won an award for one of its electric concept cars, the Trezor (pictured).
Also, the company says it is working with Nissan – its other big brand – to launch a car-sharing service within the next 10 years.
Production output (2016): 6 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $63 billion
Annual profit (2016): $3.2 billion
Number of employees: 132,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Faw is another company created by the Chinese government, so it’s probably no surprise that many politicians prefer it.
The company is looking to the politicians to create a framework for the development of autonomous technology, and they will probably set out their standards within the next few years.
In the meantime, Faw has already been working on self-driving technology, including for trucks.
The company has already started testing its driverless truck on the roads of China, and it may be on the way to Europe.
Production output (2016): 500,000 units (cars)
Annual revenue (2016): $37 billion
Annual profit (2016): $1.8 billion
Number of employees: 94,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Volvo has been busy signing a raft of deals with autonomous tech providers and developing its own in-house capabilities.
A key partnership may be with Nvidia, with which it has developed a self-driving tech which, some claim, could rival that of Tesla.
But Volvo is also involved in less glamorous auto sectors as well, supplying supersized vehicles for mining as well as general trucks.
Recently the company tested an self-driving garbage-collection truck, which requires an additional set of autonomous technologies.
Production output (2016): 2.8 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $44 billion
Annual profit (2016): $2.3 billion
Number of employees: 50,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Kia’s relatively modest ambition of having self-driving cars by 2030 belies the gusto with which the company has taken up the challenge.
The company has launched a distinct brand or business unit – Drive Wise – for all things autonomous, and it has already conducted numerous tests using the technology.
Kia is looking into giving its autonomous cars “blind control” capabilities, which includes fingerprint scanning and gesture recognition.
In that sense, it’s one of many companies which are planning for entirely new technologies to feature in the cars of tomorrow.
Production output (2016): 2 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $42 billion
Annual profit (2016): $1.5 billion
Number of employees: 60,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Like some of the companies on this list, Tata Motors is part of Tata the industrial giant with many business units in many sectors.
One particular business unit which may be critical in its development of autonomous cars is its computer technology development unit.
That and the industrial robotics business unit may have some things to contribute to the development of self-driving cars by Tata.
As it is, Tata Elxsi’s driverless car platform is already proving it has a market of its own, having entered partnerships with a number of the leading global automakers.
Production output (2012): 2.9 million units
Annual revenue (2012): $26.5 billion
Annual profit (2016): $972 million
Number of employees: 62,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: While Suzuki is not exactly a small company, considering it has annual revenues of more than $26 billion, it’s not quite the size of Toyota.
So it’s probably quite pleased with the partnership between the two companies, especially as the accelerating interest in, and fast development of, autonomous technology may be something it had anticipated.
Maybe no one really anticipated how quickly driverless tech would get going – at least in the research and development sector of business.
And for companies like Suzuki, developing a partnership with Toyota almost guarantees that it won’t drop out of the race.
Production output (2016): 1.2 million units
Annual revenue (2016): $30 billion
Annual profit / “net income” (2016): $120 million
Number of employees: 47,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: For a while, Mazda had something in common with Porsche – apart from the fact that both companies make cars.
Neither company seemed particularly interested in autonomous technology, with Mazda saying that it would take the fun out being in a car.
But the driverless bandwagon seems to have gathered unstoppable momentum and it looks increasingly unlikely that a company can stay being a top automaker if it ignores the new tech.
So, perhaps naturally, Mazda is partnering with Porsche on driverless technology, both companies having felt the breeze of change, if not the full gust.
Production output (2018): 500,000 units (target)
Annual revenue (2016): $7 billion
Annual profit (2016): $667 million (loss)
Number of employees: 33,000
Developments in autonomous and electric vehicles: Tesla has been famous for making electric cars for quite some years.
But lately it’s been keen to let people know that it also feature autonomous technology, called Autopilot.
The luxury carmaker has received a staggering 500,000 pre-orders for its Model 3 electric car, which features the driverless tech as well. Some say it’s closer to 600,000.
And if each car is sold for around $40,000 that’s a lot of money for being among the first to see the motoring signs of the times.
Data sources: Wikipedia, Fortune, Forbes, the above-mentioned auto companies, and assorted media