Driverless Cars: The Next Space Race?

By Chris Beck October 17, 2013

Few topics generate more buzz than autonomous cars. Just getting to work each day turns most of us into drivers or passengers, and anything that will make time spent in a vehicle safer and more tolerable captures major attention.

Some carmakers insist the day of cars that drive themselves isn't far off. If you're not up to speed, check out this infographic below from www.AutoInsurance.us. Fully autonomous cars are many things – unbelievable, futuristic, and awesome. At the same time, they're also scary.

 

self-driving infographic

But not scary enough to deter Google, the public leader right now in fielding a self-driving vehicle. Secretive in most things, Google has been highly visible in testing a fleet of autonomous cars that includes Toyota Priuses, and it says it will start marketing its self-driving technology in 2018.

But Google is far from the only player in the game. A Dutch/Israeli company called Mobileye is nipping at its heels – and hopes to market its technology first. Volvo, Nissan and GM, among others, plan to sell fully autonomous cars. The whole situation begs the question: Are driverless cars the next "space race"?

The battle for supremacy in space exploration began in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik unmanned satellite. A terrified U.S. quickly tried to keep pace, even though plenty of critics questioned whether the effort was worth it or even possible.

The notion of driverless cars isn't without its own doubters. Only 19.3 percent of men and 16.6 percent of women said they would buy or ride in a self-driving car, according to an AutoInsurance.us survey. Most cited safety as their main concern, despite the allure of casually sipping coffee and catching up on email on the way to work while the car operates itself.

Despite the doubters, the race toward mass marketed self-driving cars is well underway. Google plans to have its technology on the market by 2018. Mobileye also has been aggressive, recently raising $400 million from several big name investment firms including Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. It says its technology will be ready by 2016.

What’s the difference between Google and Mobileye? Mobileye promises to offer its autonomous technology at a fraction of the cost, and this matters when it comes to mass production.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors and Paypal, reportedly expressed interest in using Google’s technology in his vehicles. However, in an interview with Bloomberg, he said Google’s lidar cameras (used for autonomous driving) are too expensive to be used on auto assembly lines. Mobileye founder Amnon Shashua seems to want to capitalize on this. “You cannot have a car with $70,000 worth of equipment and expect it to go into mass production,” Shashua recently told The New York Times.

As it stands, Google’s technology is much more advanced than Mobileye's. Most of the other competitors have been mum on their advances, though Nissan recently released the below video of its driverless vehicle. But who knows what will unfold?

Remember, the Soviets were first to make it to space, first to send a man to space, first to orbit the earth, and the first to walk in space. But the U.S. went all in on the final hand, on July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed Apollo 11's lunar module on the moon.

While the space race may have been enormously political, it also pushed two nations to innovate like never before. They could see space, they could see the moon, but they had to figure out how to get there. The space race didn’t just motivate us to explore space, it inspired others to rethink the word "possible" and made people believe in the power of technology.

So here we are, on the edge of driverless cars. We know they are coming, but we don’t know who will get there first, or whether consumers will accept it when they do.

Chris Beck is a well published freelance writer in the insurance and tech space. Originally from Asheville, N.C., and a University of South Carolina Alum, he graduated with a degree in Journalism.




Edited by Stefania Viscusi

Contributing Writer

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