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  • By John R. Quain

Are Leaders Emerging in the Autonomous Car Space?

Nearly every type of business model--and nearly every kind of technology--is being applied to the autonomous car space. Some envision the end of private car ownership while others are betting a particular technology will prevail (video vs. lidar, for example). It is, as the cliché goes, the wild, wild west in the automotive business.

But at least two companies seemed to be taming the market this week: GM's Cruise and Google's Waymo.

GM has demonstrated its prowess (and inventiveness) in the self-driving space with its Super Cruise, hands-free technology for highways. No other car maker offers anything like it or anything close to its reliability (thanks to lidar-based maps). And GM has been testing autonomous vehicles in places like San Francisco (and taking some dings for its efforts). It got a major vote of confidence in its technologies this week with SoftBank's $2 billion investment in GM's Cruise subsidiary. True, it's not as if SoftBank has any particular insight into the self-driving space (it also invested in Uber; so there's that), but it definitely injects some much needed cash into GM's efforts in the AV wars.

Meanwhile, Waymo appeared to make progress on its plans to rule the roads.

The idea is for Google to sell its self-driving systems to automakers, not to build cars by itself. And this week, it made news of a sort by announcing plans to purchase up to 62,000 Chrysler Pacificas to outfit as self-driving vehicles. How precisely those autonomous Pacificas will be deployed isn't exactly clear—most likely they will end up as robo taxis in southern markets—but the move is an obvious step in the right direction: Prove that it can add the technology to existing designs from automakers, setting those automakers up as future Waymo customers. Moreover, by taking this approach Waymo is underscoring the fact that it may be the only technology company demonstrating the kind of conservative engineering philosophy that automakers prefer.

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