Our Ultimate Driverless Car Report Card

A recent poll found that about 9 out of 10 American adults are afraid of the technology that will take their hands off the wheel. Which auto company is doing the best job of overcoming such serious roadblocks?

Are you ready to give up the wheel?

Autonomous technologies have been slowly and quietly creeping into your car over the last 100 years. But now, advanced driver assist tech is taking over duties traditionally meant for, you know, humans--accelerating, braking, and even navigating and steering. One day, they will render the driver optional, as well as provide cheaper, safer, and more environmentally friendly transportation. They could even change the way we own and use automobiles, the way we build our cities, and how we conduct our daily lives.

But before any of that can happen, self-driving proponents have to do one thing: Convince people that surrendering the steering wheel--and, thus, control of their lives--to a computer is a good idea. That won’t be easy: According to a recent poll by market research firm Harris Interactive, nearly 9 out of 10 American adults fear these advances, citing hardware and software failures, as well as security issues stemming from mischievous malware and hackers hell bent on causing chaos as primary concerns. So who’s doing the best job of overcoming such considerable obstacles? Take a look--then take a spin.

HONDA

Honda offers all of the driver assists or building blocks like Lane Departure Warning, Forward Collision Warning and a basic Adaptive Cruise Control. But only on one model: the Accord. The automaker is, however, playing with various experimental vehicles with technologies thought to be “essential for a driverless automobile,” such as robust infrastructure communication systems between vehicles. Recently, it even unveiled a semi-autonomous Accord based on the production model. The only enhancements included radar, a pair of cameras, and Wi-Fi. But it is capable of slowly maneuvering without human input in controlled environments.

Conclusion: All of basics are here and the company is actively developing more advanced systems. But driver assist options are only available in a relatively low percentage of Honda’s fleet, and primarily in the top trims only. GRADE: C

ACURA

Acura RLXImage courtesy of Acura

Honda’s more luxury-minded sibling, Acura, is doing a better job of incorporating ADAS technologies into its fleet of vehicles. All of the foundational technologies are here. It also offers a semi-autonomous auto pilot-type feature, Lane Keeping Assist. Available on the RLX flagship sedan and MDX crossover, it uses a camera mounted above the rear-view mirror to watch the lane markings on the road, and adjust steering to maintain a center position in the lane.

Conclusion: Acura is in the game, but doesn’t offer much in the way of technologies that the average consumer can buy today, and the ones they can are only available in top-shelf editions. GRADE: C+

GENERAL MOTORS

GM’s driverless efforts are mostly centered on the Cadillac brand, specifically the ATS, XTS, CTS, and SRX lines, in which it offers all of the typical driver assist functions. However, they come at a steep price, ranging from $3,000 (Front Collision Alert and Lane Departure Warning) to $6,000 (adaptive cruise control, emergency mitigated braking, cross-traffic alert, blind-spot monitor, etc.).

Super CruiseImage courtesy of GM

GM is also working on an auto-pilot called Super Cruise that I was able to test drive last summer. It is very elegant and inspires confidence in machine-over-man technology. But it hasn’t seen much real-world mileage. Our drive in a Super Cruise-equipped Escalade happened at GM’s Milford proving ground, a very controlled driving environment--essentially, an oval. Even so, GM is expected to release a version of Super Cruise by 2020, if all the legal and legislative hoopla surrounding self-driving technology is worked out.

Buick gets most of the safety-oriented driver assist options: blind-spot monitoring, collision mitigation, lane departure. But none of the auto-pilot-type features like lane keeping. And the features are only available in varying degrees. A basic assist package is available on most Buick models. The most advanced options are available on the LaCrosse at a premium of around six grand. However, you can find them on the options list for the Verano, LaCrosse, Encore and Enclave, the bulk of Buick's line.

Sadly, Chevrolet and GMC have been cheated somewhat. GMC is offering ADAS technologies like Lane Departure, ACC, and Collision Alert on it full-size SUVs in the top and Denali models. Chevy also offers basic options as well, but not on all models. The new Impala is the only Chevy model that can be outfitted with the whole shebang (ACC, Lane Departure, Blind Spot Monitoring). Cost? Around $8,000 above base price.

Conclusion: Approximately three-quarters of GM’s fleet is offered with basic driver assist systems. Only half its vehicles are available with advanced systems and only in the more upscale trims. GRADE: B-

FORD

It might seem like Ford has been a little slow on the autonomous uptake, but that is far from the truth. The Blue Oval has just been a bit reserved about its driverless research and development. That is, until recently. The company offers all of the building blocks across 80% of its offerings, including most of the Lincoln models. However, Ford says it will not build a driverless or self-driving vehicle simply because it has the tools. There has to be a market for it first. So don’t expect them to announce a launch date any time soon.

Ford Auto Fusion Hybrid 2Image courtesy of Ford

Even so, Ford recently unveiled a Fusion Hybrid research mule it plans to use in various tests. Most recently, the automaker demonstrated its vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology at CES 2014 and how it can be used in conjunction with ADAS technologies to help avoid collisions on the road. The demo was impressive.

Conclusion: Ford feels it’s too premature to speculate on timing for fully automated driving. It is focused on strategies and solutions to tackle the legislative, societal, and technical challenges around automated driving. But it has to be executed at a price that is desirable to consumers. GRADE: B

GOOGLE

If you were expecting Google to be at the top of this list, here’s why the tech giant is not: If we’re interpreting all of the indicators correctly, Google will not actually build a fleet of autonomous cars for sale. Instead, it will sell or, most likely, lease its self-driving software to an automaker or automakers. So it’s developing only one part of the equation. Even so, Google is so far ahead of everyone else in this regard, we have to give it kudos. Nearly every major auto maker--Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, and Volvo, to name a few--is in pursuit.

Image: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson

Conclusion: Since Google will most likely produce the first working completely driverless vehicle, which could make its debut sometime in 2016, and all others have announced plans to “unveil” semi-autonomous car by 2020, if the market dictates, Google has to be placed in the top half of the pack. GRADE: B+

TOYOTA

Typically, Toyota doesn’t say much about anything, especially products at the research and development stage, until is ready to roll of the assembly line. That includes driverless and self-driving technologies. The automaker did, however, recently demonstrate a host of new driver assist technologies, including a pedestrian avoidance and braking system, vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communications, and an impressively accurate lane keeping system. Unfortunately, none are available to the public. And although I was able to ride in the vehicles, questions were not allowed. Too bad.

Toyota Advanced Active Safety Research VehicleImage courtesy of Toyota

But Toyota’s latest auto pilot technology, Automated Highway Driving Assist, looks to be top tech in this field. At the core of AHDA are two technologies: Lane Trace Control and Cooperative-Adaptive Cruise Control. LTC uses cameras and radar to read lane markers and adjust steering to keep the car centered in the lane it occupies. LTC can even steer a car through curves (not of the hairpin variety, we assure you) and automatically brake to ensure correct cornering speeds. While other automakers offer similar systems (namely, Infiniti and Mercedes-Benz), LTC uses GPS mapping data to make it more accurate and, thus, is able to take over driving duties in more situations.

C-ACC is adaptive cruise control on steroids. It allows the car to maintain a safe following speed and distance between you and the car in front. The difference is that C-ACC-equipped vehicles can communicate with other similarly equipped vehicles in their vicinity. This allows the car to share acceleration and deceleration data so each can adjust their speed accordingly and better maintain inter-vehicle distance. It also allows vehicles to be electronically tethered in platoons--vehicles line up like train cars behind a leader and when connected the vehicles mimic the movements of the leader. The rub: This technology’s success depends on widespread adoption, with other vehicles having the same compatible technology.

Conclusion: Toyota has a lot going on in the shadows, but little in the open where consumers can gobble it up. The behind the scenes work has piqued our interest. GRADE: B+

BMW

Self-driving systems won't really be ready for prime time until they're able to handle all types of driving situations. That means allowing the automated driving systems push the car to the edge of the envelope and then pull the car back in. At CES 2014, BMW demonstrated that its ultimate driverless machine, a 2 Series prototype outfitted with ActiveAssist, could do just that--handle any situation when pushed to the limits of adhesion--on the infield track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Even though the car’s trajectory was pre-programmed, the ActiveAssist auto-pilot was able to navigate the course at break-neck speeds without hitting any obstacles or losing control.

While ActiveAssist is years away from becoming a salable option, BMW does offer a comprehensive list of advanced driver assists now and they are available on most models.

Conclusion: More than 90% of its fleet can be equipped with ADAS technologies. Plus, they have a driverless car that can hoon (that is, be badass in a reckless way, for all you non-car junkies) better than a professional drift racer. GRADE: B+

AUDI

Officially, Audi’s Piloted Driving Program is tasked with making technology that is capable of taking over in times that drivers don't enjoy being behind the wheel like bumper-to-bumper traffic or when driving endlessly in a straight line. It is not tasked with completely replacing drivers. Consequently, Audi execs says that a truly driverless vehicle is not in the company’s future right now. However, it has developed one of the most elegant auto pilot features we’ve seen to date, Traffic Jam Assist. It recently demonstrated an updated version of TJA at CES 2014. It can pilot the vehicle in traffic with no human input up to 40 mph.

Based on a brief demonstration in Las Vegas, we found there is no physical difference between the ride with human or the automated pilot. Sleeping, reading, or trolling the Internet is not suggested when the system is engaged--but it sure seems possible. Even more importantly, this technology could theoretically be installed in a production model within the next two years. Audi is also working on a self-parking system--one where the human element is completely eliminated from the equation--that could be released in the same timeframe. Imagine: You pull up to the mall, step out of the car, push a button, and the car finds a spot and parks itself while you look at fishing poles. Or whatever.

Conclusion: Audi offers one the most comprehensive list of driving assist options on the market, including ACC, emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, pedestrian warning, and park assist. And they are available on all models. Audi does it all and does it well. Its systems are well executed, smart, and intuitive. GRADE: A

VOLVO

Swedish manufacturers are often all about safety, and thus, deeply invested in the development of ADAS and driverless technologies. The company’s goal is to make its cars so safe that by 2020 nobody is killed or seriously injured in one of it vehicles. Most recently, Volvo announced it was starting a large-scale autonomous driving pilot project in which 100 of the automaker’s self-driving cars will be unleashed on to public roads around the Swedish City of Gothenburg to see how the cars fare under everyday driving conditions.

The joint initiative--between Volvo Car Group, the Swedish Transport Administration, the Swedish Transport Agency, Lindholmen Science Park, and the City of Gothenburg--is designed to pinpoint the societal benefits (improved safety and efficiency) of autonomous driving, as well as help the automaker fine-tune its technology and identify any future development issues it may incur. The project will commence in 2014 with customer research and technology development, as well as the development of a user interface and cloud functionality. The first cars are expected to be on the roads in Gothenburg by 2017.

Auto Parking Concept AppImage courtesy of Volvo

Conclusion: Most Volvo products (approximately 95%) already carry bleeding-edge driver assist technologies such as emergency braking, which can slow and even stop the car if a driver fails to react to an impending collision, as well as cyclist and pedestrian detection, lane keeping assist, cross traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control. Plus, its all-new XC90 SUV, which goes on sale next year, is rumored to be able to drive and steer itself in traffic. Volvo is a true trailblazer in this area. GRADE: A

MERCEDES-BENZ

The list of current safety technologies Mercedes-Benz has pioneered--or credits itself with pioneering, at least--is long and impressive. Innovations such as ABS, brake assist, airbags, stability control, and dozens more. Until now, the company’s creations have treaded lightly on drivers. Even a company that prides itself on building luxury cars that people will love to drive realizes that the vehicle can’t get too much safer while humans are still at the helm. However, like Audi and BMW, M-B is unwilling to take the steering wheel out of the driver’s hands just yet.

Mercedes-Benz Active Lane Keeping AssistImage courtesy of Mercedes-Benz

Still, its ultimate goal is to create a set-it-and-forget-it car in which passengers simply input a destination, sit back, and relax for the journey. That could be decades away. In the meantime, the company is offering a wide variety of high-tech driver assists. Lane departure warning and assist systems keep vehicles in their lanes, adaptive cruise control can take cars from zero mph up to cruising speed without driver assistance and proactive braking systems will slow the vehicle in times of emergency or potential collision before the driver has time to react. In addition to all the building blocks, M-B is also one of the first automakers to offer a semi-automatic auto-pilot system. Under the guise of a lane keeping system, it was first offered in the 2014 S550 and more recently became available in the E Class. Now, ADAS technologies are available (as an option) on M-B’s entire fleet.

Meanwhile, Mercedes has started testing a fully autonomous S-Class sedan on German city streets last summer. It would like to have a production-ready version of this Intelligent Driving System by 2020.

Conclusion: Like Volvo and Audi, Mercedes-Benz is leaving no pavement uncovered when it comes to offering its clients the most advanced safety and performance technologies. Its systems are well executed and operate flawlessly. GRADE: A

[NOTE: Any company not listed here--most notably the Chrysler Group--needs to considerably increase innovations in order to be included in this group.]

[Photo courtesy of Volvo, Video Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz]

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14 Comments

  • James Hartman

    I'm blown away that the article fails to mention Infiniti's Q50. It's steer-by-wire technology is market-leading (if not controversial). Numerous reviewers have commented on the vehicle's ability to maintain speed and course correctness on the highway for man miles without any driver intervention whatsoever.

  • Chuck Tannert

    Steer-by-wire is a building block for autonomous driving, and we have covered it in the past (http://www.fastcompany.com/3022489/innovation-agents/self-driving-cars-let-go-of-the-wheel). However, Infiniti didn't respond to our inqueries for information until it was too late. But they do deserve some recognition. Yes, the Q50 is outfitted with a host of ADAS technologies including one of the best lane keeping features on the market. However, these features are not available in many of its other vehicles. Plus, the automaker doesn't plan to compete in the driverless race for a while. Its sibling, Nissan, has taken over that burden. Nissan is not on here for the same reason -- they refuse to comment. Only to say it is working on autonomy and should have something -- if the market bares -- by 2020.

  • James Poirier

    The official website of Manhattan's Ground Zero (WTC.com) indicates that the Federal Transit Administration is developing "future transportation services" at the former World Trade Center (WTC) site.
    So, with the federal government transforming Ground Zero into the World Transportation Center (WTC), the question is, "Which car-maker will win the government contract to begin installing driverless cars in downtown NYC?"

  • Wait: Toyota announced they were going to give a pass on developing self-driving cars for now, so they should be downgraded in spite of their earlier research projects. (Also worth noting that a lot of the early work on the Toyota vehicle you show was done long ago by one of the earliest members of Google's team.)

    Tesla is the car company that has announced the earliest date -- 2016 -- and they are not on your list. Neither is Induct.

  • Chuck Tannert

    According to Tesla CEO Elon Musk, the automaker’s goal is to produce a car that is capable of running on auto-pilot within the next three years. But the question asked for this article was "What are companies doing right now?" Tesla is doing nothing right now. Though we believe that the carmaker will incorporate driver-assist technologies into its cars in the near future, it hasn’t done so yet.

    But we assure you that Toyota is, indeed, in the game. Though, the company has been tight-lipped about when the tech will be available, it does exist and it is currently testing it. We've driven in the prototypes. The reason Toyota got a better grade than say Ford is that it has been and is openly testing driverless systems on the open road. Like Ford, however, Toyota isn’t going to release an autonomous vehicle until its clientele can afford one.

  • Chuck Tannert

    The Induct query is tougher to answer. The shuttle is a clever product. But it is not designed to go on the highway or any major roadways, for that matter. It’s more golf-cart than car. It's impractical nature and price tag (quarter of a million dollars) made me disqualify it from this list, which can be updated at any time.

  • Wagner Ferreira

    Everyday we go inside elevators, maybe several times in a day. Everyday we take trains, busses, planes and we put our lives into someone else´s hands, right? We do it and we don´t overthink about it. Why is that? If we´re put in the driver´s seat, of course our brain is receiving the message that we´re responsable for everyones (including ourselves) safety. So if I´m responsable, how can they expect me to do nothing? I think the car companies must change the interior´s car design concept. If the car´s going to drive itself from point A to point B, there no need for the driver to be staring at the street. The interior must be redesigned to be like an office or a living room with TV, frigobar, confortable sofas, and so on. And I also think there´s no need for windows anymore. If the passanger wants to see the streets, he could have the option to do so by clicking on a remote control and watch it on the TV panel.

  • Chuck Tannert

    Subaru didn't respond to us -- plain and simple. However, since I am a fan of the brand, I will tell what we found. The Eyesight Driver Assist package available on three models, only in the Limited or Premium trims. It is impressive and offers plenty of ADAS building blocks. Plus, it is currently being upgrade to include more driver-assist technologies; i.e., building toward a driverless future. However, we haven't been privy to any true autonomous vehicle R&D, other than the driver assists. I'll try to update this info soon.