AV Platform An Overview of Autonomous Car Tech Platforms—North America, Part I
Plenty of automakers have announced or shown off self-driving vehicles. But the majority of these companies are not creating their own self-driving hardware and software systems in-house; they’ve either acquired specialized firms to create these systems for them or are outsourcing the work to third parties. Some of the most respected leaders in this growing market segment are in the United States and Canada.
There’s lots of talk about autonomous vehicles (AVs) these days, and a fair number of prototype cars and trucks are currently on public roads. There are also fully functioning autonomous robo-taxi services ferrying passengers around various global locales, occasionally without anyone in the driver’s seat.
But for all the talk and test vehicles in the marketplace, the number of actual “platforms”—the intelligent technology at the heart of AVs—remains limited. The reason for this is simple—creating these platforms is a major endeavor requiring significant capitalization, copious systems engineering, and rigorous testing. For now, this work is better suited to technology companies (ones with experience in computer hardware and software), rather than automakers. (For the purposes of these articles, automakers may be referred to as original equipment manufacturers, or OEMs.)
This explains why some of the biggest car companies in the world have either outsourced their tech platforms or have purchased companies specializing in creating them.
A new awareness of the limitations of the technology has led to a number of vendors focusing their efforts on delivering a fleet of robo-taxi AVs rather than production vehicles in order to gain valuable real-world testing experience. Another reason for this focus on fleets and taxi services is that in the future, individual mobility may decrease in favor of multi-person or group mobility.
Some companies have chosen to collaborate or share data with their former competitors in an effort to lower the costs of developing their own AV platforms. This has created an often confusing web of alliances, licensing agreements, and investment partnerships in the automotive industry.
This article is the first in a series comparing and contrasting the dominant industry players and their technology platforms, often referred to in the industry as “stacks.” This article explores companies based in North America, while additional articles in this series examine those in the Europe/Middle East/Africa (EMEA) region, and in Asia. Specifically, this article covers Argo AI, Aurora, Blackberry QNX, Comma.ai, Cruise, Local Motors, and Magna.
North American AV tech platform players, Part I
The following companies have developed a broad range of AV platform technology for disparate OEM purposes. For some firms, production cars for consumers are the primary target application. For others, the main focus may be autonomous trucking, suburban ridesharing, middle-mile delivery, or low-speed shuttles.
Note that not every company listed below produces or incorporates a complete standalone platform. But each produces critical hardware and software that enable AV platform functionality.
Autonomous Vehicle Platforms—North America, Part I
Argo AI is funded by Detroit automaker Ford, which has formed an alliance with Germany’s Volkswagen to sell trucks and vans as well as electric vehicles (EVs) and AVs.
VW has also invested USD$1 billion into Argo and folded its Autonomous Intelligent Driving (AID) division into the company. “From Volkswagen’s perspective, it would make a lot of sense to cooperate with an American player (Ford), given that the regulatory conditions for preparing the breakthrough of autonomous driving are more advanced in the U.S. than they are in Europe,” said Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess.
Both Ford and VW will likely integrate the as-yet-unnamed Argo AI platform in future AVs. Argo has stated that it may also sell or license its platform to additional OEMs.
Argo has cautioned that at least initially, its safety-focused Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Autonomy Level 4 (“fully automated driving”) AV platform will not be integrated into individually owned vehicles. Instead, its platform will be designed for geofenced goods delivery and robo-taxi fleets operating in specific, clearly defined geographic areas.
Argo made a further point of announcing that its vehicles’ speeds will be limited, and therefore, some high-speed roads may be off-limits. The company has hinted that differently tweaked versions of its platform may be utilized for different locales. It’s also stated that certain weather conditions such as rain, hail, or heavy snow may present additional constraints to autonomous operations.
Argo currently has pilot projects with Ford Domino’s (for pizza), Walmart (for groceries), and Postmates (for delivery/fulfillment) in Miami using research cars to simulate AVs. Other pilot programs in Detroit, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C. are ongoing.
Aurora, a Palo Alto, CA-based firm led by the former head of Google spinoff company Waymo (see below) got a multimillion-dollar investment from Amazon in 2019. It’s also inked deals with Fiat Chrysler (for commercial vehicles), South Korea’s Hyundai, and Chinese electric carmaker Byton. Aurora’s platform is called Driver, and auto manufacturer Volkswagen initially wanted to package it in its cars, but VW has now moved on to a new deal with Argo AI (see above).
Formerly known as Research in Motion, this Canadian electronics firm was previously thought of for its distinctive smartphones with keyboards. But ever since buying microkernel-operating-system firm QNX in 2010, the company has been in the business of OS software for AV platforms. Not only does the company offer autonomous tech software, but it’s also been providing solutions for infotainment and cockpit controls for nine of the top 10 automaker OEMs worldwide for more than a decade.
Blackberry QNX makes a big deal out of the fact that its OS for Safety AV platform conforms to the ISO 26262—ASIL D safety standard, making it one of the only such platforms to do so. The company also touts the fact that its platform is highly secure and modular, so that over time, network plug-ins can be safely added and updated. Multiple OSes can run on Blackberry QNX’s hypervisor-enabled system-on-a-chip (SoC).
Pieces of Blackberry QNX’s platform use components from NXP, NVIDIA, and Renesas, all of which sell their own AV technology (see below in this article and the EMEA and Asia parts of this series). The company’s OS for Safety powers the Apollo AV platform from Chinese search engine company Baidu (see the Asia article in this series) and the CSLP platform from Irish vendor Aptiv (see the EMEA article in this series).
While not a full AV platform per se, tech company Comma.ai’s Openpilot technology is open-source software that works with its associated windshield-mounted camera-and-display hardware called Comma Two.
The Comma Two plugs into mass-market production cars (think Toyotas, Hondas, and Chryslers) to become a retrofittable aftermarket addition enabling limited autonomy on lower-end car models that lack it.
For now, that autonomy is limited to hands-free (SAE Level 1) Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and Automated Lane Centering (ALC) functions in stop-and-go traffic and on highways. But this will likely be augmented in the future. In addition, a rear-facing camera monitors a car’s driver for signs of drowsiness. Lane Departure Warnings (LDW) and Forward Collision Warnings (FCW) alert the driver to potential road hazards.
The appeal of the Comma Two is its low cost (USD$999) and ease of installation (typical integration time is less than 10 minutes).
Cruise is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors, co-founded by MIT alumnus Kyle Vogt in 2013 and purchased by the Detroit automaker in 2016.
Initially, Cruise offered a USD$10,000 RP-1 aftermarket kit for the Audi A4 or S4 that could be retrofitted to allow for highway autopilot functionality. In 2014, the company stopped selling the RP-1 and built a prototype of its own AV.
Since GM’s acquisition, the firm has focused exclusively on AV features for the GM Chevrolet Bolt hatchback. In 2018, the company received major additional funding from Japan’s Softbank and Honda as well as investment firm T. Rowe Price.
As of 2017, Cruise and GM were testing at least 180 autonomous-enabled Bolts and other vehicles on public roads in Scottsdale, Arizona; San Francisco; and Detroit. That year, in an interview with Fortune magazine, Vogt described videos of the Bolt vehicles in action as “the most technically advanced demonstrations of self-driving cars that have ever been put out there in public.” Shortly thereafter, the company started a ride-hailing and food-delivery service in San Francisco that made use of its cars.
Vogt explains that unlike other companies, Cruise consciously chose to operate in San Francisco because the city offered a much greater density of construction, cars, people, cyclists, and emergency vehicles than many other municipalities. “Testing in the hardest places first means we’ll get to scale faster than starting with the easier [cities],” he says.
One of Cruise’s claims to fame is that the company is second only to Waymo (see below) in terms of the number of test miles its vehicles have driven on California roads. As of 2019, Cruise had driven about 450,000, while Waymo had driven 1.2 million. Cruise also has racked up significant miles on its 3D simulator (for its part, Waymo claims tens of billions of miles driven in simulation).
Cruise’s medium-term goal is to have an SAE Level 5 (“full automation”)-capable vehicle that lacks a driver, steering wheel, foot pedals, and/or manual controls. This vehicle would form the basis for a fleet operated in conjunction with ridesharing firm Lyft.
Thus far, Cruise has shown off a futuristic-looking prototype called the Origin (that it developed in conjunction with Japanese automaker Honda) in and around Phoenix, Arizona and its San Francisco company headquarters. Cruise has said the Origin is designed to last one million miles per unit.
However, despite earlier repeated promises to roll out such a vehicle as part of a robo-taxi service, Cruise stated in 2019 that it would be delaying the deployment of these genuine AVs due to more testing being needed.
According to reports, Cruise’s AV platform has had trouble detecting whether objects that are in its vehicles’ paths are actually in motion or not. And at least anecdotally, Cruise vehicles have been said to have had repeat accidents and/or near-accidents. Still, Cruise has insisted that the Origin will be capable of operating during the day or at night and in a wide range of weather conditions.
Local Motors is an Arizona-based low-volume specialty car manufacturer that utilizes both 3D printing and client collaboration (what it terms “crowd-sourcing”) in its design process. Because of these methods, the firm claims it can vastly reduce a vehicle’s time-to-market using “direct digital manufacturing” (DDM).
In 2016, the company unveiled the Olli, a partially recyclable, 3D-printed, electric-powered autonomous bus. The app-ordered, on-demand 12-seat driverless bus features IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) technology that enables voice control and rider-personalized experiences. Traveling at speeds up to 25 mph, it will follow a pre-set route and is aimed at operations on college campuses and at airports.
In 2018, Local Motors received funding and investment pledges from Texas-based Xcelerate, an auto leasing and financing firm, and Florida-based Elite Transportation Services, a ridesharing venture.
The pricing of Olli has not yet been announced, but so far, the boxy AV has been installed as a transport shuttle in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia; Turin, Italy; Buffalo, New York; Akron, Ohio; and National Harbor, Maryland. Further deployments are under discussion in Denmark, Miami, and Las Vegas.
Magna has produced components and controllers for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) for more than a decade. Along the way, it’s integrated LiDAR sensors from Israeli AV technology company Innoviz (see the EMEA article in this series), a business it later strategically invested in.
Magna has been testing SAE Level 3+ AV functionality in vehicles since at least 2017. In August 2017, Magna introduced its scalable, low-power MAX4 AV platform, which is capable of SAE Level 4 functionality. Unlike other AV hardware, MAX4 is designed to be tightly integrated into a vehicle’s body, with no unsightly appendages or protrusions that characterize numerous other AV platforms. As with other Magna auto components, MAX4 is designed for volume production.
In 2018, ridesharing firm Lyft signed an agreement with Magna to jointly develop a proprietary AV platform for a fleet of cars. This venture has more than 300 engineers dedicated to it and has demonstrated SAE Level 5 autonomous functionality on public roads in California.
In June 2018, Ann Arbor, Michigan-based self-driving shuttle vehicle firm May Mobility had Magna begin to retrofit its fleet of shuttle vans with AV hardware, in a deal that could eventually encompass thousands of vehicles.
Part two in this series will cover North American Autonomous Vehicle Platforms starting with N-Z.