In an autonomous car from SAE level 4, perception equipment – the eyes and ears – and software take over human brain functions. This requires accurate maps, laser, radar, lidar and cameras. The lidar, which means 'detect light and range', works in conjunction with the car's cameras. This system pulses laser waves to map the distance to objects day and night, up to up to 100 meters with an accuracy of a few centimeters. The price of all this equipment is between €150,000 and €200,000. The lidar is a high-cost item, although this system is becoming increasingly cheaper due to industrial production. Together, these tools build a four-dimensional image of the environment, and all functions of the moving car are controlled using stored software and communications in the cloud.
Google's X-lab began developing an autonomous car in 2009. In 2016, the company had already completed more than 1.5 million test kilometers and spent $1.1 billion on the development of an autonomous car. The company previously used a self-developed model ('the firefly', see photo). The company then deployed converted Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids, and these will be exchanged for fully electric Jaguar I-Pace cars.
In 2016, Google's parent company Alphabet parlayed autonomous car developments into a new company called Waymo (derived from "a new way of mobility").
Cruise was founded in 2013 with the intention of developing a self-driving car. In 2016, General Moters acquired the company for an amount of $500 million. To date, the company has completed 700,000 test miles in San Francisco's urban environment with no fatalities.
In 2016, Uber began working with Volvo to develop an autonomous car that could serve as a taxi. The company had acquired software manufacturer Otto for a net $600 million. The company predicted that there will be 75,000 self-driving cars on the road by 2019. That became zero. During the test phase, the company experienced several accidents, including one with a fatal outcome. In addition, Waymo became a target of data theft, a case that was decided in Waymo's favor by the court. Uber therefore had to pay damages of €250 million (in shares). This led to the departure of Uber founder Travis Kalanick. His successor, Dara Khosrowshahi, has put the development of an autonomous car on the back burner. It was recently announced that Uber has signed a contract with Waymo to use this company's autonomous cars in the future.
Until recently, the use of lidar was not possible due to the high costs for car manufacturers that opt for accreditation at SAE level 3. Tesla therefore equipped its cars exclusively with radar, cameras and computer vision. The latter means that all driving Teslas transmit camera images of traffic and the way in which motorists react to 'the cloud'. The company has been developing these images with artificial intelligence for years. It prides itself on the fact that its cars have rules of conduct for every conceivable traffic situation.
The development of the Tesla was accompanied by high expectations but also by many accidents, some of which were fatal. Last year, Tesla made available a beta version of the FSD ("Full Self Driving") software package for a price of $15,000. However, the company had to recall as many as 362,000 cars under the authority of the Traffic Safety Administration because this package was encouraging illegal driving. It looks like that these issues have been resolved and some experts have suggested that Tesla will be able to qualify for accreditation at least at SEA Level 3. This still has to happen.
Ford and Volkswagen
These companies threw in the towel in 2022 and unplugged Argo, a company that was supposed to develop an autonomous car to provide SAE level 4 taxi services. Instead, both companies announced focusing on the SAE levels 2 and 3, like most auto makers.
According to analysts at AlixPartners, the industry has invested $100 billion in developing car automation by 2023, in addition to $250 billion in development of electric cars. I will discus the profitability of these investments later.