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The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Automotive

From cars that drive themselves to hackathons that improve sale-a-thons, the leaders driving change in the car business.

The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies of 2015 in Automotive

Model S

[Photo: courtesy of Tesla]

1. Tesla

For making long-range electric cars a quickly expanding reality. Founder and CEO Elon Musk’s reputation for disruption is well earned. First he showed that battery-powered cars are not only possible but desirable, with sales of the Model S—the company’s first mass-market luxury sedan than can travel 300 miles, at a steady 55mph, on a single charge—growing exponentially in the U.S., China, and across Europe. Now Tesla is building a family, with plans to roll out the Model X, a seven-passenger, all-electric luxury SUV early next year and to develop its more affordable (think: under $35,000) Model III to bring battery power to the common man. To prepare, Tesla is partnering with Panasonic to build a "gigafactory" that will allow Tesla enough battery capacity to build up to half a million vehicles a year. Tesla inspires rabid fandom, but it’s got the numbers to justify it: Its market valuation exceeds $30 billion, which is more than half the market cap of G.M., the largest U.S. automaker.

2. Toyota

For leading the way in developing hydrogen-powered cars for the everyman. Toyota plans to do for fuel cells what its Prius did for hybrids: make them ubiquitous and top-of-mind for green-thinking consumers. The automaker is gearing up to introduce its hydrogen-powered sedans in California, Japan, and Germany early next year, banking that an attractive exterior and sporty design will create a market for these cars that emit only water vapor. While other automakers are experimenting with fuel cells as niche vehicles, Toyota is the only one to engineer a global release, making all of its fuel-cell components in house. It has also invested millions of dollars in helping to develop an infrastructure of hydrogen-refueling stations in California.

3. Google

For putting driverless cars on the road. Though cars that drive themselves and will take you anywhere on command are still a couple decades away, Google has been making inroads by refining its software for an autonomous vehicle. Its cars can now recognize—and avoid—objects and people around it, while predicting where, say, 10 pedestrians at a street corner may be headed. Sensors mounted throughout the car can even detect a cyclist’s hand signals and "read" signs like the red octagon held by a crossing guard in a school zone. After testing early versions on its test track, Google plans to put 100 of these cars, sans steering wheel or pedals to accelerate or brake, on the road in California, where it is legal to test driverless cars. The prototype achieves top speeds of just 25 m.p.h, but you’ll still have to buckle up.

4. General Motors

For making embedded wireless connectivity the new in-vehicle standard. General Motors is the first automaker to implement 4G LTE wireless connectivity across its new models, effectively turning its vehicles into mobile phones on wheels. About 90 percent of G.M.’s 2015 model year vehicles across its four brands—Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC—are equipped with 4G LTE, with the rest of G.M.’s portfolio to have it next year.

5. Mercedes-Benz

For teaching cars to both drive in slow traffic and parallel park themselves. Automakers are scrambling to pack each of their cars with the latest in self-driving technology, but Mercedes-Benz has emerged as the clear leader, with 70 percent of its latest S-Class luxury sedan drawing upon autonomous features to let the driver sit back and relax. Its traffic jam assist lets the car take over in slow-moving traffic (up to 37 m.p.h.), steering, braking, and accelerating without the driver’s help. It can also parallel park on its own.

6. Honda

For making crash tests more efficient. One of the challenges to designing a car rather than, say, an iPhone app or a pair of pants, is the notoriously long lead time required between conceiving the design and bringing the vehicle to showrooms. Honda’s new visualization technology calls into question the assumption that designing a new car needs to be slow. The software, based on the programs used by Hollywood animation studios, allows Honda to study its crash-test simulations with a new degree of precision and realism, removing the crash barrier in the virtual environment to study the impact from myriad points of view. The three-dimensional crash-simulation technology provides engineers with an unprecedented level of analysis by manipulating the rendering to view the crash from multiple angles or remove parts of the vehicle to home in on a specific component.

7. Ford

For making the best-selling vehicle in America, the F-150, 700 pounds lighter. Ford is disrupting three industries—steel, aluminum and automotive—for the makeover of its F-150 pickup truck, the bestselling vehicle in the U.S. for more than three decades. The automaker increased the use of high-strength steel and swapped heavy steel body panels for aluminum to shave up to 700 pounds from the truck and boost fuel efficiency by up to five miles per gallon. The automaker changed its historic Dearborn Truck Plant from steel to aluminum-bodied production and started selling the aluminum version late last year. If successful, other automakers will follow suit. But Ford knows what’s on the inside also counts, hosting the automotive industry’s first app-developer conference in September as part of the Connected Car Expo at Super Mobility Week. It included a hackathon to challenge developers to create driving apps based on data from Ford vehicles and from the City of Los Angeles.

8. Apple

For CarPlay, which is turning the car into an iPhone on wheels. Google isn’t the only software company muscling its way into cars. Automakers including Audi and Volvo are partnering with Apple to install its CarPlay system, introduced last year. CarPlay allows users to integrate an iPhone with their car's infotainment screen to access apps, make calls, and listen to music on their iTunes library. Many Apple iPhone functions will be available, including iMessage for sending and receiving text messages, satellite navigation, and Siri Eyes Free integration, which lets drivers state commands to send text messages or check the weather while keeping their eyes on the road. More than a dozen automakers, including highbrow niche sports-car maker Ferrari and mass-market General Motors, have signed up so far, suggesting that the interface will soon be ubiquitous.

9. Navdy

For keeping drivers’ eyes on the road with its Head-Up Display screen. With legislation cracking down on drivers’ cell phone use and automakers under pressure to keep dashboard distractions to a minimum, it’s difficult to balance safety with the growing pressure to stay connected. Enter Navdy, a head-up display device that mounts onto the dashboard of any car and projects onto a transparent screen in front of the windshield nearly everything a driver would want to do on the phone. Described as "Google Glass for your car," Navdy can navigate, tweet, play music, and share GPS coordinates with friends and family by voice command, without requiring a driver to lift his or her eyes from the road. The technology, similar to the devices commercial pilots use to land planes, plugs into the car’s data port and pairs with Bluetooth. Navdy reached $1 million in preorders in its first week.

10. Edmunds

For disrupting the traditional car buying process by making price and history more transparent. Industry researcher is known for its objective car reviews and guidance in evaluating add-ons and features. But now it wants to break out of the standard sales channel and improve upon it. Operating out of a Google-like office in Santa Monica, California, Edmunds hosted a three-day hackathon called Hackomotive to spur entrepreneurs to come up with better ideas for selling cars, and it launched an accelerator to help the teams that caught the judges’ eyes. In addition to the apps it’s incubating, Edmunds is releasing a feature on its own mobile app that unlocks car prices in real time for buyers browsing on the lot (the pricing app portion of the app is currently available).

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