Stop thinking about self-driving cars as something far-off or futuristic.
They're here. They're now. They're being made and tested and shown off by companies like Google, BMW, and Tesla - the latter of which has already released self-driving features to its fleet of electric vehicles. If you want to know more about that, as well as the entire the state of the autonomous vehicle industry, Pocket-lint has listed 14 automakers betting on such technology.
While you eagerly wait for the opportunity to sit back and let your car do all the steering and work for you, we think you should read up on which companies are currently hard at work developing the vehicle of tomorrow, today.
They're predicting that, in 5 years or more, we'll all be not-driving around town... in their own driverless vehicles of course.
Self-driving cars: Apple
Okay, so Apple isn't an automaker, but hear us out: Apple is developing an electric car, codenamed Titan, and it plans to start shipping this secretive automotive project by 2019, according to The Wall Street Journal.
That's not all...
Earlier this year, Apple lawyers reportedly met with officials at California's Department of Motor Vehicles, while Apple engineers quietly toured a 2,100-acre campus in the Bay Area that’s used as a high-security testing ground for autonomous vehicles, The Guardian reported.
It should be pointed out that we don’t actually know Apple is committed to making a car that consumers will be able to purchase sometime after 2019. The company is famously secretive, though it sometimes deliberately leaks information about its plans.
The Wall Street Journal, for instance, cited anonymous sources familiar with the matter, and claimed Apple's first electric car won't be fully autonomous, though that capability is “part of the product’s long-term plans".
READ MORE: Apple Car: What's the story so far?
Self-driving cars: Audi
Audi has proven time and again that it is developing autonomous technology.
The company views it as a "logical, evolutionary step in the development of the car." But at the same time, Audi has insisted: "Piloted driving is not a 'must', but rather something you 'can' select." It even vowed to "never build robot cars, but instead will always put the driver in the focus".
Nevertheless, at CES 2013, Audi showed off an A7 and demonstrated its "piloted driving" system for automated parking. It worked like this: you open an app on your smartphone, press a button, and the A7 drives out to you. During the demo, the A7 never traveled more than a few miles per hour. Two years later, Audi let an A7 Sportback drive itself more than 550 miles from San Francisco to Las Vegas for CES 2015.
Also, at the the DTM season finale in 2014, Audi demonstrated an Audi RS 7 concept. It completed a lap on the Grand Prix track in Hockenheim – at racing speed, and without a driver. At the time, Audi dubbed its RS7 demo the "fastest autonomous car on the planet."
Check out Audi's Pilot Driving website for more details on what it's doing.
Self-driving cars: BMW/Baidu
China-based search giant Baidu and BMW are working on a joint project to produce a self-driving car for the Chinese market. According to the BMWblog, both companies completed the first successful tests of their driverless car in December in Beijing - using a retooled BMW 3 Series.
BMW entered into a partnership with Baidu in late 2014 and has been testing self-driving car tech in Beijing and Shanghai. While BMW is handling the automotive side of things in the retooled 3 Series, Baidu is providing the AutoBrain software, which adds artificial intelligence, image comprehension, voice recognition, automated driving maps, positioning, detection, etc.
Although the companies' self-driving car has been in development since 2013, no launch date has been set. However, according to The Guardian, it will be released in China by the end of 2015. BMW has been testing self-driving cars since 2011, when a 330i was tested on a closed circuit. Then, in 2014, a 6 Series Gran Coupe performed self-drifts. A self-driving BMW i3 did the same in 2015.
As for that recent road test, it occurred over a 18.6 miles route and involved the 3 Series traversing across streets, switching lanes, making left and right turns, merging onto and off highway traffic as fast as 62 mph, and responding to surroundings.
Self-driving cars: Ford
Ford announced in December 2015 that it'll test its self-driving cars on California’s public roads. The Michigan-based automaker said it has enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Testing Program, which includes companies like Nissan, Volkswagen, and Google.
Fully autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrids are expected to hit California’s streets next year. Also next year, Ford said it will expand its partnership with Stanford University in 2016. The partnership, which began in 2013, aims to solve some of the technical challenges related to driverless cars.
Ford has been testing fully autonomous vehicles on public roads in Michigan, Arizona, and and at Mcity, a 23-acre simulated urban environment at the University of Michigan. The tests are part of Ford’s 10-year autonomous vehicle development program.
Ford even has a Palo Alto lab that opened in January. It is a critical piece of Ford’s effort to "take the company to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and data and analytics".
In its first year, the lab has spawned relationships with UC Berkeley, Santa Clara, and San Jose State and conducted research on “sensor fusion”, which gives a car a 360-degree view of its surroundings and more.
Rumours also suggest that Ford will announce a partnership with Google to create a dedicated off-shoot tasked with creating self-driving vehicles.
Self-driving cars: General Motors
GM is developing autonomous technology and will have a fleet of self-driving Chevrolet Volts (a hybrid) cruising around the campus of its Detroit technical center by 2016, according to USA Today, which spoke to CEO Mary Barra.
During the interview, the executive also announced something called “Super Cruise,” a semi-autonomous feature that will let an unspecified Cadillac model handle itself on the freeway. Super Cruise will appear with that car sometime next year. That's all we know for now.
GM is remaining relatively quiet not about how its fleet of driverless Volts will fit into grander plans for automation, and it also hasn't announced a timeframe for when we can expect it to introduce tech beyond Super Cruise.
Barra only told Wired that GM is "gonna move aggressively".
Self-driving cars: Google
Google is making an entire, standalone business for its self-driving cars, and the purpose of this unit is to offer Uber-like rides.
According to Bloomberg, Google's ride-for-hire business will launch under its parent company, Alphabet Inc, sometime next year - possibly even in partnership with Ford (as above). Google's self-driving cars are already cruising down public roads in San Francisco and in Texas, so it's assumed the company's upcoming ride-hailing service, which will include both large and small vehicles, might launch in those cities first.
The service could kick off around college campuses, military bases, or corporate office parks. The idea is that, with this fleet of self-driving cars, Google will rival Uber, which is working on its own driverless-car project. But Google executives have only officially said thus far that they’re interested in self-driving cars to reduce traffic accidents. How noble.
Google's vehicles, which are still prototypes, are different than the original builds first announced last year, as they include manual controls and require a driver to be available. They're therefore similar to Google's self-driving Lexus SUVs, which have been going around the company's campus for a while now, but these new prototypes have been approved for street-use.
The cars have been designed to work without a steering wheel or pedals, but currently, Google has included a removable steering wheel, accelerator pedal, and a brake pedal, all of which allows a safety driver to take over while driving.
Self-driving cars: Honda Motors
Honda announced in October 2015 that its own self-driving vehicle will be on the roads by 2020, the same year as other Japanese car makers Toyota and Nissan will bring their own autonomous cars to market.
The announcement was made a week ahead of the Tokyo Motor Show, where it introduced a golf cart-looking concept that fits two passengers. The Japanese automaker intends for it to be an autonomous car, as reported by Engadget. The concept's steering and navigation are controlled via voice commands, and it features partial doors and an infotainment system.
More interestingly, however, is that Honda is developing a car that'll "drive you to your chosen destination", according to SlashGear, which spoke to engineers currently testing the project car at an R&D center in Japan. The prototype relies on high-resolution maps, lane recognition, and 3D-sensing and features a stereo camera facing ahead, six radar sensors, six laser rangefinders.
Although it has a high-accuracy Global Navigation Satellite System with a gyroscope, it doesn't yet have an object recognition system. SlashGear said the final version, which should debut in 2020, will likely get you "from A to B in ideal conditions" but likely won't be fully autonomous.
Self-driving cars: Mercedes-Benz
During a Frankfurt auto show, Dieter Zetsche - CEO of Mercedes owner Daimler - suggested the company might develop driverless cars: “This is a concrete development goal of ours,” Zetsche said to Reuters. “It would be even more convenient if the car came to you autonomously.”
Mercedes showed off a futuristic-looking autonomous concept during CES 2015, and a video of a self-driving “Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025” in 2014. One year earlier, a S-Class vehicle made an autonomous journey from Mannheim to Pforzheim. And the company's latest concept is built to shuttle Generation Z around megacities. It's called Vision Tokyo.
Unveiled at the Tokyo Auto Show, it's a self-driving vehicle with lounge-like seating that can hold up to five people. It's powered by a hybrid fuel cell system and projects holographic 3D imagery of apps, maps, and other displays to entertain its passengers. There’s also a seat that can swivel to switch a passenger around to a driving position if needed.
Keep in mind concept vehicles are not headed to the production line. They're meant to prove automakers are dreaming of the future.
Self-driving cars: Nissan
Nissan first announced in 2013 that it planned to have a fleet of self-driving, autonomous cars commercially ready by 2020, emphasising that it had been working for years to bring autonomous driving cars to the masses. Nissan Europe's Vice President of Communications also tweeted in October that Nissan expects to have advanced autonomous cars on the road by 2020.
His tweet included what appears to be a blueprint or a concept for an autonomous vehicle from Nissan. The blueprint seems to show how Nissan's self-driving system works. It featured a front camera mounted on top of the car as well as an "around view monitor" camera setup throughout the vehicle. It also showed radar and laser scanner sensors.
Nissan's AVM setup processes video from four cameras, displaying composite footage on a screen, as if there is a single birds-eye view camera right above the vehicle, thus providing a virtual 360-degree scene of the car. Keep in mind Carlos Ghosn, Nissan's CEO, said in May that Nissan's autonomous tech won't be like Google's self-driving car; it won't be fully autonomous.
Nissan has instead envisioned a car that assists with driving. Nissan's autonomous system will provide a 360-degree view around the vehicle to help reduce accidents. For instance, it unveiled an IDS concept car at the Tokyo Motorshow. The car has both piloted and manual drive modes, with a seats that rotate inward, and a steering wheel that recedes into the dashboard.
The company said the IDS was the next step of its plan to launch a number of autonomous vehicles by 2020.
Self-driving cars: Tesla
Tesla Motors has more than just electric vehicles on its product roadmap: it's working on autonomous technology.
Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors, in an interview with CNNMoney in 2014, first announced Tesla had already developed a mostly-autonomous car: "Autonomous cars will definitely be a reality. A Tesla car next year will probably be 90 per cent capable of autopilot. Like so 90 percent of your miles can be on auto. For sure. Highway travel," Musk said.
Then, when Tesla launched the Dual-motor Model S in 2014, it unveiled a $2,500 add-on hardware package coming to Tesla vehicles (the Model S and Model X) that would enable autopilot functionality. The hardware, which is not available as a retrofit, meaning you can only get it on new Teslas, will work with future software updates to deliver a range of autonomous-like features.
Also, beginning with vehicles manufactured in late September 2014, all new Model S sedans (and the upcoming Model X crossover) will come with specific hardware that allow support for Tesla autopilot and like features. During a press event in 2015, Tesla officially announced the release of version 7.0 of the Model S software, which enables various self-driving features.
The update rolled out to all Model S cars in the US, followed by Europe and Asia. With this update, Tesla vehicles equipped with that pricey hardware package will be able to - presumably - steer to stay within a lane, change lanes on its own, and more. The software’s autopilot features won’t offer a completely driverless experience but something close to it.
Self-driving cars: Toyota
Toyota plans to make cars capable of self-driving on highways by 2020.
It has used the term “automated driving” to describe its system, which allows vehicles to get on and off the highway and change lanes without the help of a driver. It even showed off a prototype car in October 2015 that carried people onto a highway in Tokyo.
Toyota's prototype car is called Highway Teammate and goes into an automatic driving mode when a driver presses a button on the steering wheel near a highway entrance. It not only drives onto the highway, but also switches lanes and exits via an off-ramp.
The Lexus GS-based prototype car uses map data to determine where it should change lanes and 12 sensors for capturing data. You can see a rendering of the car in action on Toyota's YouTube channel.
Self-driving cars: Uber
Uber isn't an automaker...yet.
Uber announced in February that it would open a research centre in Pittsburgh to develop self-driving technology. And while speaking at a conference in San Francisco last autumn, Travis Kalanick, Uber's CEO, said self-driving cars could reduce 30,000 annual deaths on US roads.
The first test vehicle for Uber's self-driving car programme was spotted earlier this year driving on the residential streets of Pittsburgh covered in cameras and sensors, according to the Pittsburgh Business Times. It's a retooled Ford labeled with “Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center".
Uber cofnrimed the vehicle was part of its early research efforts regarding mapping, safety, and autonomy systems. It features multiple cameras and a spinning lidar sensor on the roof. Google’s cars use similar technology.
Uber's autonomous car efforts are being led by Carnegie Mellon University, which has an advanced robotics centre currently developing self-driving technology, including a portion of Google’s efforts.
Self-driving cars: Volkswagen
Although a team of University of Nevada researchers recently completed Mexico's longest-ever journey in an autonomous Volkswagen, traveling 1,500 miles, Volkswagen has remained quiet about its own plans for self-driving cars.
That said, Volkswagen hired a self-driving car expert, Johann Jungwirth, from Apple in November. The New York Times said Jungwirth will head the new Digitalization Strategy Department and report to CEO Matthias Müller.
It's therefore assumed Volkswagen has something in the works.
Self-driving cars: Volvo
In 2013, Volvo announced plans to launch in Sweden the "world’s first large-scale autonomous driving pilot project". Volvo, a Swedish car company, said it would test 100 self-driving Volvo SUVs on public roads in Gothenburg.
The project - called Drive Me - sees Volvo's self-driving cars being tested on about 50 kilometres of selected roads. Volvo said the Drive Me project would focus on the societal and economic benefits of autonomous vehicles as well as infrastructure requirements, suitable traffic situations, customers’ confidence, and how surrounding drivers interact with a self-driving car.
But, apparently, Volvo's self-driving cars won't hit Gothenburg until 2017. That said, last November, Volvo unveiled an autonomous vehicle concept that allows drivers to relinquish the controls when traveling long distances or stuck in congested streets. Volvo's Concept 26 project, named after the average daily commute time of 26 minutes, features a Relax mode.
This mode retracts the steering wheel and fully reclines the driver's seat, making the concept car fully autonomous. The steering wheel and seats realign when the driver decides to retake control of the vehicle. Again, though, this is just a concept and therefore won't ever likely hit the production line, but it does give a look at what Volvo has in mind for driverless vehicles.
In the meantime, Volvo is working something called Intellisafe. It is a forthcoming auto-pilot system that will reportedly be limited go the fleet of 100 XC90 crossover SUVs apart of the Drive Me project. Volvo hopes to make the system available in production models shortly thereafter.