Whether you think self-driving cars are the stuff of science fiction or a potentially paradigm-shifting new form of transportation, autonomous vehicles are coming—and the companies developing them are spending big money to make it happen.
A few years ago, industry analysts seemed to think Silicon Valley would win the race to get self-driving cars on the road—and plenty of tech giants are involved in their development, including Apple, Google, Uber, Tesla, and Intel. But car companies are fighting to keep pace by becoming more nimble and collaborative, investing in autonomous technology partnerships with companies both large and small. In fact, many now think that it will be one of these tech company-automaker partnerships, combining hardware and software expertise, that gets the job done in the end.
So, who are the leaders, and where are the key regions of influence? Centers of tech innovation like Boston and the Bay Area are heavily involved in the development of autonomous vehicles, but so are smaller, less techy places like Pittsburgh and Phoenix.
Detroit, the city that first put the world on wheels more than 100 years ago, is also a big player in this new frontier—although at least one local venture capitalist cautions the Motor City that it shouldn’t assume leading the development of self-driving vehicles is its birthright. (More on that below in the Detroit section.) The United States should likewise not assume the autonomous vehicle race is theirs to win, as Chinese and European companies are also working at a furious pace to get these technologies moving.
We put together this slideshow to highlight the top six American cities and regions for the development of autonomous vehicles, as of late 2017. The list is based on interviews with sources and a review of news reports and analyst opinions. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive or comprehensive list, but rather a snapshot of where things might be heading and some of the top entities involved. See the slideshow above and more details on each region below.
With a mayor devoting resources to transportation innovation, city streets open to vehicle testing, and a concentration of tech companies working on autonomous technologies, Boston is at the forefront of the development of self-driving systems. The city is also home to top-tier universities like Harvard and MIT, as well as plenty of corporate R&D outfits, such as the Toyota Research Institute and the Mitsubishi Electric Research Laboratories.
Automotive supplier Delphi splashed out more than $400 million to acquire four-year-old MIT spinout nuTonomy in October, and another MIT-related startup called Optimus Ride, which is working on the full stack of self-driving software, has raised a total of $23.2 million so far from a cadre of investors.
With an abundance of robotics and artificial intelligence talent, expect to see more Boston-based startups get snapped up by larger entities involved in developing autonomous vehicles. Other Boston companies to watch: automotive tech maker ClearMotion, which raised $100 million from investors earlier this year, and Neurala, a computer vision and deep learning startup.
Famous for being the center of U.S. steel production until the industry moved overseas a few decades ago, Pittsburgh is enjoying a comeback fueled in part by a burgeoning tech ecosystem.
The Steel City put itself on the commercial self-driving map with a long relationship with Uber, which tested its driverless cars at a steel mill repurposed into a replica city. Pittsburgh was the first place to pilot Uber’s self-driving taxis with real customers, and Carnegie Mellon University is one of the longest-leading research institutions studying autonomous vehicle tech—its researchers were key to the development of Google’s first self-driving car in 2009. In February, Ford invested $1 billion in Pittsburgh startup ArgoAI, saying the company would be responsible for creating the brain powering its autonomous vehicles.
Pittsburgh’s relationship with Uber eventually fell apart, but the experience led civic leaders to push for municipal policies that would be friendly to other companies developing driverless technologies. Over the summer, Gizmodo reported that NextDroid, a robotics startup made up of MIT and Carnegie Mellon alums, was stealthily testing autonomous Cadillacs in Pittsburgh.
As the nation’s premier center of technology development, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area are home to most of the key companies developing autonomous vehicles. Many of the foundational innovations that underlie driverless cars—machine learning, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and more—were pioneered or commercialized in Silicon Valley.
The valley is the headquarters for many of the sector’s biggest players, including Waymo (Google’s self-driving division), Apple, Tesla, Uber, Lyft, and Intel. It’s also home to some of the high-profile startups that bigger entities have acquired, such as Cruise Automation, as well as research and development offices for some of the world’s largest auto manufacturers. In short, Silicon Valley is overflowing with software developer talent, capital to advance the sector, and thought leadership to drive the autonomous future.
The state of California has also recently taken steps to allow driverless cars to be piloted on its roads. In June, USA Today reported that more than 30 companies had so far filed the paperwork required to test autonomous vehicles in the state.
After becoming the very first state in the nation to pass legislation enabling the testing of autonomous vehicles in 2011, Nevada has been a favorite place to pilot self-driving cars and trucks. Google wound up conducting tests there after initially running into resistance from California. The company recently spent more than $29 million to buy 1,210 acres of land at the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center.
Nevada is also home to Tesla’s Gigafactory, a 5 million-square-foot facility that manufactures batteries for its electric vehicles. Since Tesla is also heavily involved in developing driverless cars, we can expect to see continued activity from Elon Musk’s company in Nevada.
The state is also testing vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, which would allow self-driving cars to communicate with traffic lights and other smart-city systems. Audi piloted its Traffic Light Information program in Las Vegas due to the city’s advanced traffic management system, the Las Vegas Sun reported earlier this year. With its dry climate and miles of flat, sparsely populated highways, Nevada is likely to continue being a hotbed for driverless car testing.
With a favorable regulatory environment, well-maintained roads, and sunny climate, metro Phoenix has become a center for driverless car testing. Companies that have piloted autonomous vehicles in Arizona include Uber, Waymo, and Ford. (Last December, Uber relocated some of its testing programs to Phoenix after a spat with California over permits, USA Today reported.)
In October of this year, Ars Technica reported that Waymo would soon test an autonomous taxi service—Chrysler Pacificas with no human safety drivers—on the roads with actual customers. Waymo reportedly wanted to launch a commercial ridesharing service powered by driverless cars as soon as late 2017, starting in suburban Phoenix.
Waymo has missed its aggressive targets in the past, so we likely won’t see the fleet of Pacificas operating commercially until 2018 at the soonest. As of November, the company was still accepting early rider applications for families that want to test the vehicles during the development stage.
Southeast Michigan—which encompasses Detroit, capital of the domestic auto industry; Dearborn, where Ford is headquartered; Oakland County, where most of the world’s Tier 1 suppliers have an office; and Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is located—is the largest transportation technology hub in the world. Accordingly, it has been mounting a serious effort to lead the development of self-driving cars.
When driverless technology began to make headlines a few years ago, many in the tech world thought that the domestic auto industry was too big, too slow, and, well, too dumb to be a serious player in the development of autonomous technologies. It was assumed Silicon Valley giants like Google and Tesla would lead the charge, but then the auto industry realized it was in danger of becoming obsolete in less than a generation—and it quickly got to work investing in talent and R&D, as well as establishing partnerships with tech companies to advance driverless technologies.
The region is home to two major test beds—U-M’s MCity and the American Center for Mobility—and more engineers per capita than anywhere else in America. The state also has some of the loosest driverless car regulations in the country. The Techstars Mobility program, which incubates startups from all over the world working in the realm of connected cars, is also based in Detroit. Just a few days ago, Automotive News reported that Ford will establish an “autonomous vehicle center of excellence” in Flat Rock, just outside of the Motor City, in the coming months as part of a $700 million investment; the publication also said Ford still plans to launch self-driving cars “at scale” in 2021.
Transportation innovation is in Michigan’s DNA, and the state’s business leaders are keen on making sure it stays that way. In a recent conversation, Chris Thomas, a partner at Fontinalis, the Detroit venture capital firm co-founded by Bill Ford and specializing in mobility investments, said that despite Detroit’s long history with the automotive industry, it shouldn’t presume it has a place at the front of the line.
“Michigan is doing a good job, but it needs to continue to want to be better and run fast,” Thomas warned. “People say it’s our birthright, but I couldn’t disagree more. We need to run after it in a way we haven’t as a [unified] region. Can we win? Yes. Should we win? Yes. Will it be given to us? No—full stop. It will require incredible hard work, focused strategic thinking, and working together.”