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Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Learn which countries are ready for self-driving cars and who is on track to win

Updated: August 21, 2023 9 mins read Published: October 04, 2018

It wasn’t too long ago, when the idea of an autonomous vehicle (AV), was in the same category as warp speed and hyperdrives.

Today, we’re certainly on track for the next step in automotive technology, speeding towards self-driving vehicles. With countries like England, France and China, eliminating the production of combustion engines by 2040, the foundations are being laid for autonomous driving (AD). The latest electric vehicles (EVs) already include advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS) with semi-autonomous cruise control features. The race is on to be the first to provide autonomous driving (AD) features as a basic standard.

Companies investing over $1 billion in R&D in autonomous technology include Ford, Toyota, GM and Hyundai, highlighting the scale of interest from OEMs around the world.

But are the public ready for it?

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Safety concerns hold consumers back

With any big leap in automotive technology, safety concerns hold consumers back. In this Foley survey, 35% of the public believed safety was the biggest obstacle to the growth of autonomous vehicles.

Obstacles to the Growth of Autonomous Vehicles

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: Fole – 2017 Connected Cars & Autonomous Vehicles Survey

Consumers in countries like India and China are far more open to embracing an autonomous future. Populations are bursting at the seams in major cities, leaving little room for parking or the transportation of goods. The benefits AVs bring, opens up a world of opportunities for the economy.

Percentage of consumers who prefer different levels of automation

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Survey 2017

But is the infrastructure ready for AD? Or the technology?

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

India is renowned worldwide for its chaotic traffic system. There are little to no road markings available, let alone digital road signs with the ability to communicate with AD systems. In major cities, the need to avoid various livestock crossing into the street is an everyday occurrence. AVs face an uphill battle to navigate through these obstacles, and no doubt, test the technology to the limits.

What are the requirements for autonomous driving?

Success for AD depends on a country’s ability to provide certain foundations. Technology development has been the major hurdle, since DARPA opened the floodgates for autonomous progression to occur, with the launch of the Grand Challenge event in 2004. The technology is bound by no borders other than research funds, government interest and the drive to succeed in this industry. Global OEMs and tech giants including Ford, General Motors, Waymo, Tesla and Baidu have been competing ever since.

Digital and road infrastructure must be at a level to accommodate AVs that can communicate with each other, data centers, traffic infrastructure and pedestrians, in what is known as V2X connectivity.

The public’s fears must be alleviated by knowledge of the advances in technology. Well-known brands should educate consumers about the features of connected cars and AD. Especially how connectivity can improve safety, as this is the most important issue for users.

Consumers are ready to ride a fully autonomous car offered by a brand they trust

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: Deloitte Global Automotive Consumer Survey 2017

Autonomous success stories should be celebrated and widely publicized for consumer interest to rise. Presently, the media will sensationalize negative stories to boost their readership, rather than state the mundane facts of progression. Unfortunately, killer AI robots and vehicles tend to sell more stories than emerging AD technology.

Nevertheless, emerging technologies pave the way for AD to become a reality. The major holdback for a lot of countries is the political and legal issues of who would be responsible if a car hits a pedestrian. Governments must regulate for a future with driverless cars, as current legislation arises from the Vienna Convention for Road Traffic. The fundamental principle of this legislation is that a driver should always be in control, leaving it redundant for a future of AVs.

Let’s see what foundations the leading countries have in place for earlier AD adoption

The Netherlands

According to the 2018 KPMG report, The Netherlands are leading the world’s nations in autonomous readiness. While their enthusiasm for developing AD technology hasn’t gone unnoticed, it was their infrastructure readiness for AD that stood out the most.

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: KPMP AV Readiness Index 2018

The Dutch government has spent over €90 million adapting more than 1,000 of the country’s traffic lights to enable them to communicate with AVs. Well maintained roads and highways are littered with over 32,000 public and 75,000 private EV charging stations, resulting in having the world’s highest density of charging access points.

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Wepods, the world’s first electric, driverless, shuttle buses to use public roads, are in action since 2016 in Gelderland.

Government enthusiasm in AV technology has pushed forward legislation. AVs can be tested on the public roads, instigating massive investment into self-driving trucks and public transport.

By establishing the Netherlands as a country for testing automated cars and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS), the minister wants to make the Netherlands a fertile breeding ground for this kind of innovation and facilitate these developments.

Dutch National Government
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Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Sweden, home to the Volvo Group, have come along leaps and bounds in the autonomous race, by investigating AV potential since 2015. Ranking 4th overall in the KPMG report, their technology has been refined by Volvo launching its Drive Me project. They’ve given 100 AVs to Gothenburg citizens, to collect user feedback and hone AD technology in the word’s first large-scale AD project on public roads. In 2017, Volvo signed an incredible $300 million deal with Uber, to provide 24,000 driving ready Volvo XC90 SUVs to the ride hailing giant, putting Sweden on the map.

It’s our ambition to have a car that can drive fully autonomously on the highway by 2021.

Hakan Samuelsson, CEO at Volvo

Volvo have also taken public concerns for safety into consideration, and were the first car company to promise to accept full liability while cars are in autonomous mode, back in 2015.

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Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

An explosion of innovation has erupted in the USA, since the early 2000s. Although ranked third in the AV readiness report, they are home to the headquarters of over 163 AV related companies and research hubs. Companies like Waymo, Tesla and Ford are all battling to surpass each other. But it seems GM is topping the list of OEMS according to this Navigant Report.

We expect to be the first high-volume auto manufacturer to build fully autonomous vehicles in a mass-production assembly plant. The focus will be on ride-sharing first, over the individual buyer.

Marry Barra, CEO at General Motors

The USA is home to more AV testing centers than anywhere else in the world, with 23 locations currently in operation. Its superior, digital infrastructure gives a clear advantage for allowing vehicles to communicate with each other. Though, a lack of federal regulations, poor quality roads and a lack of EV charging stations, diminish its potential to succeed as the race leader.

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?


Each state is responsible for its own AD legislation, but California was the pioneer in this aspect. AD testing regulations were introduced as far back as 2014. As of 2017, full AVs can now operate on public roads. Over 50 different companies test their technologies in private test centers and on public roads, including world leaders such as Tesla, Waymo and General Motors.

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: California DMV/Business Insider 2018


Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Other states follow in California’s footsteps. Arizona is marginally behind, presently accommodating over 600 self-driving vehicles on the roads.

An executive order was signed in 2015 directing agencies to:

Undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.

Doug Doucey, Governor of Arizona


Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

AD technology has been growing exponentially in China since Baidu, the Chinese equivalent of Google, announced its launch of Apollo in 2017. A complete, open, automatic driving ecosystem that combines vehicle hardware and software systems, to allow users build their own complete AV system.

Since the launch of Made for China 2025, Baidu has been investing heavily into AV projects and has formed partnerships with the likes of Microsoft and Intel, and car makers BMW, Ford, and Daimler.

With a population of over 1.4 billion citizens, the need to reduce traffic volume is essential. Efficient mobility is key to economic growth, so when traffic congestion delays the transportation of goods across the country, it’s a major problem. This knowledge has encouraged the government to heavily invest in AD technology. AVs will reduce vehicle ownership and transform many modes of transportation, in turn boosting the economy.

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China’s citizens experience the daily obstacles of driving through overcrowded cities. Consumer trust in AV technology is twice as accepted there, compared to German and US counterparts, according to this survey by TUV Rheinland.

Consumer trust in AV technology

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Source: Ford Report 2017

The country’s need and technology advancements guarantee a place for China to be one of the world leaders in the AD race.

One thing that could help or hinder, is the government’s drive to succeed. Red tape is easily overcome, when the government has no independent regulatory authority to answer to. Western AD incidents are widely publicized, but not much is heard from Asian counterparts. It will be interesting to follow this development as the autonomous race continues.

Slow down for safety

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Although this race is fast paced, speeding ahead could damage the reputation of AD and hinder any progression. We’ve all seen how quickly this technology has changed from science fiction to fact. Tesla updated their prediction for full AVs on the road by 2020, Renault/Nissan by 2025, while Baidu has already started mass production of its fully autonomous bus.

But when problems or widely publicized accidents arise, it causes trouble for all AD companies, and can ruin the reputation of the success they’ve built.

The general consensus seems to be that adoption of AD will be a gradual process. It won’t hit big cities like London or Berlin all at once. Already, driverless cars and buses are being used in geo-fenced areas with limited speeds, without mainstream traffic to interfere or battle with. Airports are the ideal testing ground for these vehicles. Examples like the EZ10 are used daily in locations in the US, the Netherlands and China, and are expanding globally.

It’s not the winning, but the taking part that matters

Who Takes the Lead in the Autonomous Driving Race?

Clearly, autonomous driving is the next big step for the future of transportation. This vehicle transformation will benefit the world in endless pursuits, namely for the economy, for safety and environmental purposes. Yet, it may not hit the market visibly for a number of years.

Younger generations are far more willing to accept the autonomous future, but most people need to acclimatize to new ideas. First place in this autonomous race is up for grabs, but focus should remain on the safety of our citizens, instead of the glory of winning. Small steps for autonomous vehicles pave the way for giant leaps in futuristic technology. The most exciting part after AD is realized, is where to next?

If you’d like to plan, develop or scale your own technology that contributes to the goal of AD ecosystem development, contact Intellias.

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