Who's winning the self-driving car race? It's not the company you think

April 4, 2017

When you think of self-driving cars, you probably think of Tesla and its well-known Autopilot software. Or perhaps you think of Uber and its recent troubles with autonomous tech. Or you might just think of Waymo (formerly, Google's autonomous car program), which has been working the longest and most effectively on completely self-driving cars.

But none of those are positioned to win the autonomous car race. According a new study published by Navigant Research, Ford is the true leader in that field, followed closely by General Motors. 

Yes, despite all the hype around Silicon Valley funding and prowess, Detroit is showing the upstarts how its done. And for at least the next few years, Ford and GM should continue leading the pack.


To reach its conclusions, Navigant looked at ten criteria: "vision; go-to market strategy; partners; production strategy; technology; sales, marketing, and distribution; product capability; product quality and reliability; product portfolio; and staying power."

Clearly, Navigant believes that dominant forces in the self-driving car market need more than the technology to make vehicles stay in their lanes, stop at intersections, and brake for pedestrians. To be successful, companies also need ways to promote those cars; to distribute them across the country and around the globe; and ultimately, to sell those vehicles to eager consumers.

And that's where Ford and GM shine. They may be old guard, they may not have the sparkle of new companies like Tesla, but they know how to build and sell cars. They've been doing it for decades. 

You can see how major players in this field stack up in the graphic above. As for Navigant's ranking of self-driving car winners, here are the top ten:

1. Ford
2. GM
3. Renault-Nissan Alliance
4. Daimler
5. Volkswagen Group
6. BMW
7. Waymo
7. Volvo/Autoliv/Zenuity
9. Delphi
10. Hyundai Motor Group

Room for others at the top?

To be fair, those rankings could change over time.

As Tesla's gigafactory begins ramping up production, the company could churn out increasing numbers of vehicles. Though its goal of manufacturing 500,000 cars next year is remarkable, that's still just a fraction of what Ford and GM produce. And of course, without a network of dealerships, Tesla is working at a disadvantage when it comes to selling its cars. 

Waymo has no plans to sell cars. Instead, the Google spin-off is hoping to license its self-driving software to established automakers. It's entirely possible that some companies may take up Waymo on its offer, especially automakers that haven't invested much time or energy developing their own autonomous technology. (Case in point: Fiat Chrysler, which has provided some minivans for Waymo's test fleet.) To date, however, those offers haven't come flooding in.

And Uber? Like Waymo, Uber doesn't intend to build and sell self-driving vehicles. It's banking on an autonomous car revolution that will alter conventional ideas about transportation, vehicle ownership, and even cargo shipment. It seems clear that such a revolution will eventually occur, but when remains a mystery--as does Uber's right to use its possibly purloined current technology.

The full Navigant study requires a pricey subscription to download, but you can view a free executive summary of the report by clicking here

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