Self-Driving Car Wars!

By Rob Enderle June 17, 2015

China and the U.S. are in a race to see who can get self-driving cars on the road first in mass and while the U.S. is ahead technologically, China has its government behind the effort suggesting they will actually get there first. There is more than just bragging rights at play here however as self-driving cars will bring with them massive changes in the auto industry, Internet of Things (IOT) market tied to smart cities, and they’ll likely have a significant impact on the productivity of the country (not to mention the mortality rate) of the country that gets this done first. 

This is much bigger than the race for space, this is the race for advanced robotics and the battleground is freeways in the U.S. and China. 

Space Race

One of the things we forgot about the Space Race was the number of things that came out of the space program that we use today.  These included Velcro, bar codes, cordless power tools, MRI machines, quartz watches and clocks, smoke detectors, Tang (OK they can have that back), Teflon, the microchip, infrared ear thermometers, artificial limbs, LEDs, radial tires, de-icing systems for planes, Tempur-Pedic foam, freeze drying, solar cells, powdered lubricants, pens that could write upside down, and a bunch of other stuff. 

This was really a case where the journey was worth a ton more than the destination. In effect, winning the race to the moon assured the U.S. dominated in a whole bunch of industries—including the tech industry—long after the race was won.  

Autonomous Car Race

The self-driving car race likely won’t have as many technologies come about as a result.  The reason being, cars already exist. But, it is already resulting in massive drop in the price of supercomputing-like capability, the first major steps towards a wide range of autonomous machines and robots, and eventually it should result in personal flying vehicles.  If you think I’m crazy, the only thing really keeping us from really having them now is that air traffic could never control them all. If you can build an AI that can drive a car around other cars and people, making it work in three dimensions isn’t really a major jump in difficulty. And, we don’t need air traffic controllers for cars.    

Once you can get affordable machines that can actually think adopting that technology to defense, transportation, or labor isn’t that difficult.  The hard part was actually making it work and then making it affordable and apparently the idea of having a car drive itself was just far more compelling than building anything else.  Additional fallout is a massive reduction in mortality rate (cars accidents actually kill an impressive number of people), labor multipliers (smart robots and autonomous everything), and the sensor advancements will likely go a long way to automating the world.  And we haven’t even touched on defense with the advent of autonomous low cost weapons platforms and ordinance delivery systems   (looking a bit more like this).

US vs. China

Why not Europe?  They clearly have self-driving cars as well (Audi is a segment leader and Mercedes is right there with them), oh and BMW is

Image via Shutterstock

apparently working with China.  The issue for Europe is they don’t have the technology that the U.S. has or the level of government backing China enjoys.  The U.S. has the tech and China has government support (and no real fear of copying stuff).  And while the U.S. has had the brain power lead for some time, China is closing that gap. China now has the lead in manufacturing, once again, largely because their government is helping not hindering the effort. 

China clearly sees that whoever owns the next wave of intelligent machines will be the next great world power.  I think Russia sees this as well but is simply too far behind the technology curve to be truly in the race.   

Wrapping Up:  World Domination

For much of the last century the U.S. has been the dominant power in the world taking over from the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Spain (who learned to cooperate poorly and late).  China aspires to be the next great world power and clearly gets that whoever makes autonomous self-driving car work commercially first will be on the fast track to getting there—particularly, if they can weaponize the technology (though they wouldn’t really need to as the economic benefit of being the nation with the smartest machines would likely be enough). 

The game for world domination is in play and while the U.S. has a strong chance of winning it is fascinating to conclude that the U.S. Government is likely playing for the other team and doesn’t realize it.   



President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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