Study: Ford Leads Race to Self-Driving Cars

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CARS.COM — A recent study puts Ford at the head of the field when it comes to turning self-driving cars and trucks into an everyday reality. The report, conducted by Navigant Research, ranked 18 companies currently competing in the burgeoning market of autonomous vehicles.

Some you’ll know, such as BMW, Uber, GM, Honda and Tesla. Others, such as tech firms nuTonomy and Baidu, might be familiar only to the most dedicated self-driving-car fans. The biggest surprise takeaway from the report is that traditional car companies are leading the way when it comes to the engineering, testing and eventual real-world application of autonomous vehicles.

Related: Ford Doubles Down on Self-Driving Cars

The study is broken down into four main categories: followers, challengers, contenders and leaders. Other than Ford, additional companies ranked as leaders include GM and Renault-Nissan. At the head of the second tier is Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, which sits atop the contenders category, followed closely by BMW and Volkswagen.

But how could a tech giant like Waymo — the dedicated self-driving division of Alphabet, parent company of Google — trail in seventh place? And how does Tesla, a long-time champion of autonomous drive systems, fall to 12th? Then there’s Uber, which ranked nearly dead last despite the company’s huge push towards future ride hailing, minus a driver.

The study’s ranking system was based on 10 key criteria that ranged from quality and reliability to market strategy and product portfolio, and even a company’s perceived staying power. Despite being a leader on the engineering side of self-driving cars, Waymo has a much hazier strategy when it comes to marketing and building its own vehicles, at least compared to long-standing car companies.

Tesla has a sexy image and ranks at the forefront of the self-drive revolution. But the Silicon Valley-based company has a less enviable reputation when it comes to quality control, not to mention production deadlines. It doesn’t help matters that, at least until the $35,000 Model 3 arrives later this year, Tesla vehicles are also seriously expensive.

As for Uber, the company is healthy on paper, but it has been battling along many fronts, including claims of sexual harassment, and ongoing litigation between itself and Google over self-driving technology. The latter lawsuit could put Uber’s entire autonomous drive program on ice depending on whether Google can prove Uber benefitted from stolen tech secrets.

Ford, on the other hand, has covered a multitude of fronts and strategies when it comes to developing self-driving cars. The company’s latest self-driving Fusion sedans are not only plying the streets of Pittsburgh — in partnership with Uber — they also look remarkably normal, without the plethora of bizarre sensors and large radar displays seen on other autonomous drive concepts.

Ford also recently stepped into the field of artificial intelligence with the $1 billion purchase of Argo AI, a small firm dedicated to transferring A.I. to future means of mobility. In fact, Ford has been busy rebranding itself as a “mobility company” rather than one that simply builds cars and trucks.

Building a self-driving car is one thing, but the next critical phase will be coming up with ways to integrate the cars into normal traffic. Safety regulations, licensing and even how to accurately insure a car without a human driver remain major question marks. That’s why Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst at Navigant Research, refers to these hurdles as “the remaining questions that are in many ways more difficult to answer than developing the foundational technologies.”

Ford might be winning the current race to autonomy, but it won’t matter if the rules are flipped and all those challengers and contenders suddenly zoom right past.  

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