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Tech giants and driverless cars: Racing against the automakers

Modern tech conglomerate Amazon – whose interests range from online shopping, through computing devices such as the Kindle and Amazon Echo, to cloud computing and even space exploration – is in advanced talks to acquire self-driving startup Zoox, according to a report on the Financial Times website. 

It’s not the first time Amazon has shown interest in the automotive sector. The company was the lead investor in Aurora Innovation’s $530 million funding round last year.

Aurora is seen as a rival to Waymo, the driverless car company set up by Google, another tech giant.

Google could be said to have started the trend of so-called “tech companies” – by which is meant the computer technology companies that emerged barely a couple of decades ago and have grown to gargantuan sizes that nobody predicted – developing driverless cars.

Apple, for example, became the first company whose stock market capitalisation reached $1 trillion last year. Since then, Google and Amazon have probably broken through the trillion-dollar barrier, and Facebook, Microsoft and other tech companies are not far behind. And most of these tech companies now have some sort of interest in autonomous car development.

Out with the old, in with the new

In the past, before the emergence of “tech giants”, when people talked about advanced technology, they tended to think of the manufacturing sector – that is where the most advanced technology was to be found.

Manufacturing is still home to some seriously advanced technology, but these days, when the word “technology” is mentioned, most people probably imagine computer technology companies.

Some people might feel a twinge of cynicism about that because they might think that developing software is easier than hardware, and they would probably have a good argument.

A virtual car can be made to do all sorts of things inside the virtual world of a computer, and many popular games – such as Gran Turismo, Wipeout 2097, and others – have shown how good designers and programmers are in the software world. (Vehicles like the ones in Wipeout would be just too awesome to contemplate in this article, but flying cars are going to happen.)

The thing is, as soon as you step out of the virtual world, things get a lot more complicated, as tech companies have found out. Developing autonomous cars has not been as easy as they might have thought.

Yeah, sure, you can make a car move around in a conventional way, park itself and so on… all very impressive. But the fascistic mentality of discounting all the free will exercised in the real world, something that perhaps software developers, cocooned in a virtual world, are accustomed to doing, is not realistic – the real world is a wild and dangerous place compared with the blank canvas of virtual ones.

It’s all new to everyone 

To be fair, no one – neither a tech giant nor a large automaker – has developed an autonomous car that can legally operate on the roads in a wide area with total freedom. There are lots of test vehicles around, given permission to navigate a restricted route, and there are autonomous vehicles that can be used within the grounds of its owner.

To date, government regulations, along with some degree of public trepidation, have prevented the widespread adoption of driverless cars.

Nonetheless, both the new tech companies as well as what might be called the old automotive companies are developing autonomous vehicles in every category, and almost everyone believes that driverless vehicles will feature prominently on public roads of the future.

It’s difficult to say which side is ahead in the race to develop autonomous vehicles. The computer tech companies are approaching the challenge from the software development angle while the automakers have the hardware skills and, anyway, automotive development is largely about computing these days.

That said, if one had to say which side is in the lead, it’s probably the automotive companies because they have long experience in developing a large number of individual autonomous functions which are categorised in something they call “advanced driver assistance systems”, or ADAS.

The vast majority of new cars coming off production lines these days have a range of autonomous functions such as automatic emergency braking, self-parking, lane assist, cruise control and so on and so forth.

If there is one distinction to be made between the two approaches it is that the automotive companies are continuing to develop cars that consider the human driver to be in control, whereas the computer companies are going straight for what is described by the engineering association SAE as Level 5 autonomy – fully driverless.

SAE has defined six levels of autonomy, going from Level 0, for mainly mechanical without any autonomy, to Level 5. Automotive companies seem to be aiming for Level 4, at which the human driver remains in control.

The tech company in front is gigantic

While we could list almost all the large automotive companies as having initiatives to develop autonomous functions if not fully driverless cars, it might be more interesting to list the computer tech giants that seem serious about entering the automotive sector.

Alphabet – Parent company of Google, the world’s search engine, and Waymo, the wholly owned subsidiary developing autonomous cars.

Amazon – Perhaps a latecomer to the sector, but catching up very fast with the investment in Aurora Innovations and possible purchase of Zoox.

Apple – long-rumoured to be developing an autonomous car, and confirmed work in the area eventually, not much is yet known about it. Visited BMW factories during the process.

Facebook – reported to be interested in developing autonomous cars in 2017, but not much has been said about it since. Probably more interested in expanding its all-conquering social network through car dashboards.

Microsoft – currently more interested in providing support to startups developing autonomous driving through its vast cloud computing infrastructure.

Baidu – China’s equivalent of Google, the country’s leading search engine, apparently also following Google’s trajectory in the area of autonomous car development.

Huawei – the controversial Chinese telecommunications giant is reported to be developing autonomous cars as a way to showcase its artificial intelligence technologies and create a new revenue stream.

Nvidia – probably the most successful supplier of hardware and software platforms for autonomous car development, used by all the leading companies in the sector, including Bosch, Daimler-Mercedes-Benz and so on.

We could probably include a large number of startups here that could be described as “tech companies”, and we will probably do that at some point. But for now, they’re not tech “giants”, which is what this article has highlighted.

And just for completeness, we should at least mention some of the largest automotive companies in the world, in no particular order, which are developing autonomous vehicles: Toyota, BMW, Volkswagen-Audi, Daimler-Mercedes, Volvo, and General Motors.

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