There are some surprises in a new report evaluating players in the self-driving space. (Navigant Research)

Navigant Research recently issued a leader board evaluating how automakers stack up on autonomous vehicles. I caught up with author David Alexander to discuss the findings, which ranked on strategy and execution. Here are a few interesting points that came up:


A Mercedes-Benz concept car is shown at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. (Steve Marcus/Reuters )

1. Daimler is No. 1, for now

Navigant says Mercedes-Benz is in front due to its track record in technologies such as anti-lock braking and adaptive cruise control. Daimler also recently tested a self-driving tractor-trailer in Germany, and has shown off concept cars that caught Navigant’s eye.

“It’s not a huge gap between them and the others,” Alexander said. “Ford, Volvo, Toyota, Honda could easily catch up and overtake with a couple of judicious announcements.”


Navigant doesn’t see Tesla as a leader in autonomous driving. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

2. Tough grades for Tesla

Tesla has drawn recent attention with its new autopilot feature, which can handle most highway driving. While there are concerns about how the system will be used by some drivers, it’s the most obvious example of advances in car technology. Yet Navigant isn’t as impressed.

“We think the influence on the overall market is going to be bigger from companies like the German manufacturers, General Motors and the likes of Ford, Volvo and Toyota, who are going to be bringing these features much more rapidly to the more general higher-volume vehicles,” Alexander said.

He added that Tesla scored high on functionality and implementation of autonomous vehicles, but was penalized for a short record of bringing autonomous technology to market.


Don’t expect to see many self-driving vehicles in places like this. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

3. A tale of two markets — urban and rural

Alexander predicts two vastly different markets for mobility emerging.

“The rural areas will still continue on the personal ownership model, but it’s simply impractical as cities get bigger, more congested and more popular, there’s simply not room for everyone to own a car,” said Alexander, who forecasts that a car-sharing fleet will provide cheaper transportation in cities than car ownership.


The tech companies are waiting in the wings. (Eric Risberg/AP)

4. Then what about Google, Uber and Apple?

The report focuses on existing automakers, but tech companies are circling the industry, well aware of how software could reinvent transportation. I asked Alexander where he would put Google and Uber on the chart, and he said near Mitsubishi, which is ranked last.

Anderson and other observers I’ve spoken with stress how tech companies lack experience in designing vehicles and dealing with regulators. An interesting way to look at this is whether that challenge is easier or harder than what the incumbent automakers have to overcome. They lack the tech company’s software experience, and have always relied on the model of personal car ownership. Can they transition to an era of self-driving, shared vehicles? Whether tech companies or current automakers adjust best likely determines who will triumph.

Earlier this week Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick called Google the leader in the self-driving space. He acknowledged that Uber risks being disrupted if it doesn’t deliver on a fully self-driving service. A self-driving taxi would be less expensive than an Uber with a human driver in it, and consumers would likely gravitate to the more affordable option. For Uber, developing self-driving technology is a matter of life and death, and that urgency should be helpful.