Self-driving vehicle test runs equal 80 laps around Earth

Courtesy of Cruise LLC
Cruise LLC’s self-driving vehicle

The total distance of test runs of self-driving vehicles by about 30 companies in California over a one-year period to the end of November 2020 reached about 3.2 million kilometers, equivalent to 80 times around the Earth, it was learned recently.

The U.S. state is the country’s center of development for self-driving vehicles, where the companies conducted test runs on public roads. In California, the development of self-driving vehicles using advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, is leading the way, attracting not only automakers, but information technology giants and Chinese-capitalized emerging firms. In short, the development competition has become increasingly fierce.

It is assumed that a huge volume of data about driving can be advantageous for self-driving. Thus, the test-run distances provide some hints as to how far each of the companies has progressed.

The longest distance was recorded by Cruise LLC, which is a group firm of General Motors Co., logging 1.24 million kilometers. The second longest was 1.01 million kilometers by Waymo LLC, an affiliate of Google LLC. These two companies’ distances combined accounted for about 70% of the total.

Waymo has a lead in the practical use of self-driving technologies. For example, the company began self-driving taxi services in 2018 in some areas of the United States.

An increasing number of analysts assume that Apple Inc. is looking for partner companies to boost its developments in self-driving electric vehicles. Apple had more than 60 self-driving vehicles registered in the public road test — the third highest — and recorded about 30,000 kilometers in total.

Zoox, which Inc. purchased, ranked fourth in the test-run distances.

As are seen in the cases, the IT giants have shown a big presence. The ascensions of Chinese-capitalized companies were also remarkable, as two were among the top 10 of the distance lists.

Also across Japan

During the one-year period, a U.S. research and development unit of Toyota Motor Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. had also conducted test runs of self-driving vehicles. Other Japanese companies as well have conducted such tests in various locations around the nation.

Prof. Andrew Maynard of Arizona State University said that as people’s anxieties about safety and other factors have waned due to progress in the technological developments, the situation is nearing a turning point where self-driving vehicles could be widely acceptable.

Although more than 50 companies obtained permits to conduct self-driving test runs on public roads in California, there is the opinion that the distance data in that state alone is insufficient to measure the potentials of the involved companies. There are companies that have conducted these tests in other places.

Companies that conduct the tests in California need to report running distances and the number of vehicles. And The Yomiuri Shimbun has calculated the test-run distances and others based on the reported data.

Japan-U.S. tie-ups

Huge amounts of investments are necessary for developing technologies for self-driving vehicles. Therefore, Japanese companies have tied up with foreign automakers or IT firms in the increasingly fierce development competition.

In February, Toyota tied up with Aurora Innovation Inc., a U.S. company developing self-driving technologies. Toyota is also eyeing cooperation in the field of car-dispatching services.

Toyota also has a subsidiary that is working on software for self-driving. The technologies to be developed will be distributed to Toyota’s partner automakers, such as Suzuki Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp.

Honda Motor Co. on March 5 released an updated sedan model with Level 3 self-driving functions, which require a human driver to be present for taking control in the event of an emergency.

The company aims to develop more advanced models with Level 4 functions. Honda has acquired shares in Cruise to jointly develop the future model.

For Cruise, an investment fund led by SoftBank Group Corp. also obtained shares, while Microsoft Corp. has announced a tie-up with the company.

A business alliance of three automakers — Nissan, Renault SA of France and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. — tied up with Waymo to realize a ride-sharing service using self-driving cars in Japan and France.