Some of the world’s biggest and most innovative companies are investing heavily in driverless cars. But what exactly is a self-driving car? How does it work? And which companies are leading the race to get one on our roads?

By Mark Richards.

It was easy to overlook it last week. The excitement and dance moves of the Conservative Party Conference quite rightly took the headlines. But hidden away in the business pages was a story that Japanese car maker Honda is to invest $2.75bn (£2.1bn) and take an equity stake in General Motors self-driving unit, GM Cruise.

For ‘self-driving’ read self-driving cars – and the race is well and truly on. Car manufacturers want to develop a self-driving car that can be mass produced.  Honda will contribute some $2bn over the next twelve years to this project, as well as making an equity investment of $750m.

Rival Japanese car maker Toyota has already linked up with Softbank to create a new venture, specifically to develop transport services using autonomous vehicles. Renault has joined up with Nissan and in America Ford and – as above – GM are investing heavily in research and development.

But it is not just the car manufacturers. Some of the world’s biggest, most successful and most innovative companies, including Apple, Google and Uber, are spending billions of dollars on driverless cars.

Apple’s project is a good example. It currently has 66 cars on the road and 111 drivers registered to operate them – and it is codenamed Project Titan, which suggests they have lofty ambitions for it. Clearly, the iCar is on the horizon…

Back to basics: what is a self-driving car?

Self-driving vehicles – also known as autonomous or ‘driverless’ vehicles – are cars or trucks in which human drivers are never required to take control to operate the vehicle safely.

It is important to note that right now there are no legally-operating fully autonomous vehicles in the United States – and rest assured that if there are none in the US, there certainly are not any trundling round the country lanes of Dorset. But there are an ever-increasing number of partially autonomous vehicles from conventional cars with brake and lane assistance to highly-independent self-driving prototypes.

How do self-driving cars work?

Self-driving cars use sensors and software to control, navigate and drive the vehicle. Right now they are graded on a scale of zero (the cars you and I drive where all the major systems are controlled by the driver) to a level 5, where the car is completely capable of driving in all situations.

It is widely expected that level 4 cars will be on sale in the next few years: these will be cars that are fully autonomous in most driving situations, but not all – for example, snow, ice and very heavy rain could impair the efficiency of the car’s sensors.

But surely self-driving cars are already causing accidents?

The most high-profile accident came in March of this year when an Uber self-driving vehicle struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona – with some reports suggesting that the ‘safety officer’ in charge of the vehicle had been streaming a TV show at the time of the accident.

At the end of August the Apple car – a modified Lexus RX450 – was involved in a crash, when it was rear-ended by a human driver in a Nissan Leaf.

Are self-driving cars ever going to be 100% safe? Almost certainly not. But no-one can argue that human beings are anywhere near 100% safe as drivers. Autonomous vehicles will not suffer from road rage, they will not have just had an argument with their partner, be texting while they drive or be hungover from the night before. They will, ultimately, be far better and safer ‘drivers’ than we are.

The fatal crash in Arizona did prompt a huge review of safety at Uber, with the result that the company shifted all of its focus to cars, meaning that development of self-driving trucks was halted. Uber’s autonomous vehicles are now back on the roads in Pittsburgh, although with human drivers for the time being.

Many people reading this will have seen the video of Uber’s driverless truck delivering – literally – a truckload of Budweiser. With the focus switching wholly to cars, that is now one for the archives.

Driverless Cars: Is the Future on Cruise Control?

What about China?

It is tempting to think that all the work on self-driving cars is being done in the West. Nothing could be further from the truth: like all major technological advances, China is researching feverishly, and – if the recent stories have a grain of truth – almost certainly doing its best to engage in the covert activity as well.

According to an article in the South China Morning Post in April, China is on course to lead the world in driverless technology, with trials of driverless buses and cars having already taken place in Shanghai and Beijing.

The story in SCMP makes some impressive claims: it cites a trial of a driverless bus taking place in snow (albeit only at 5mph, but that is the average speed in most UK cities once it snows).

According to Li Xiao, an engineer at the grandly-named National Intelligent Connected Vehicle Pilot Zone, roads and the local infrastructure will soon become ‘intelligent’ and will send information to vehicles. Reassuringly, Li says that there will “be no need for vehicles to have steering wheels.”

As in the US, it is not just the car, truck and bus manufacturers who are working on driverless vehicles. All the big internet companies and mapping companies in China are also involved.

So who will get a driverless car on the road first?

Business Insider ranked 18 companies on ten performance indicators: vision, go-to-market strategy, partners, production strategy, product capability and so on, right through to the rather subjective ‘staying power.’ Ranked 18th was the Chinese internet company Baidu: top spot went to Ford, followed by General Motors and the Renault/Nissan Alliance. With the greatest possible respect, you have to suspect a touch of ‘home team bias’ in the rankings.

Clearly driverless cars, buses and trucks are coming. They will bring huge benefits for safety, society and the environment. They have the potential to, literally, change the world. We will look at ‘how’ in an article later this month