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New California driverless car data: Waymo and GM miles ahead—literally

Enlarge / GM plans to release this modified Chevy Bolt with no steering wheel in 2019 for use in the Cruise driverless taxi service.

California officials Tuesday released annual statistics showing the amount of driverless car testing in the state between December 2016 and November 2017. Just like last year, the numbers show Waymo, Alphabet's driverless car division, comfortably in the lead. But unlike last year, Waymo now has a serious challenger: Cruise, the driverless car division of General Motors.

Just like last year, Waymo's driverless cars logged hundreds of thousands of miles on California roads. And both this year and last, its cars were able to go more than 5,000 miles between "disengagements"—situations where a safety driver has to take the wheel.

But last year, Waymo didn't have any serious competition. Cruise only logged 10,000 miles in 2016 and a safety driver had to take the wheel every 35 miles, on average. Other companies did even worse. This year, things are different. Cruise vehicles drove a respectable 131,000 miles. And safety drivers only had to intervene once every 1,250 miles.

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Why analysts put GM and Waymo far ahead of Tesla in driverless car race

Enlarge / Cruise second-generation test vehicles, assembled at GM’s Lake Orion plant in Michigan. (credit: Cruise)

In November, Waymo announced it would begin testing fully driverless vehicles with no one in the driver's seat. Then, last week, GM petitioned the federal government for approval to mass-produce a car with no steering wheel or pedals—with plans to release it in 2019. In short, driverless cars are on the cusp of shifting from laboratory research projects to real, shipping products.

A new report from the consulting firm Navigant ranks the major players in this emerging driverless car industry. Navigant analysts see GM and Waymo as the clear industry leaders, while Ford, Daimler (teamed up with auto supplier Bosch), and Volkswagen Group are also strong contenders in Navigant's view.

Dominating the driverless car business will require both advanced autonomous vehicle technology as well as the ability to mass-produce cars with the necessary sensors and computing hardware. In this respect, Silicon Valley tech companies and the OEMs face opposite challenges. Waymo has long been the leader in driverless software, but it needs to find a partner to help it manufacture the cars that will run that software. Conversely, car companies know how to build cars but don't necessarily have the expertise to create the kind of sophisticated software required for fully self-driving vehicle.

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Driverless car from GM’s Cruise and motorcycle collide in San Francisco

Enlarge / Cruise second-generation test vehicles, assembled at GM’s Lake Orion plant in Michigan. (credit: Cruise)

An autonomous vehicle owned by Cruise, the autonomous car startup that was acquired by GM last year, struck a motorcyclist on San Francisco streets earlier this year. According to a filing with the California DMV, the motorcyclist was able to walk away from the crash but reported shoulder pain and was taken to the hospital to receive medical care. Cruise says that the motorcyclist was determined to be at fault for the collision.

The Cruise vehicle was traveling in the middle lane of a three-lane, one-way street in San Francisco's Lower Haight neighborhood. It spotted a gap in traffic in the left lane and began changing lanes—but then the gap started to close as the vehicle ahead slowed down. So the Cruise car shifted back into the center lane.

Normally, that would be an unremarkable chain of events on San Francisco's busy streets. Unfortunately, Cruise says, "a motorcycle that had just lane-split between two vehicles in the center and right lanes moved into the center lane." The motorcycle "glanced the side of the Cruise AV, wobbled, and fell over."

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Waymo has a big lead in driverless cars—but here’s how they could lose it

Enlarge (credit: Getty / Aurich)

Waymo has long had a sizeable lead in self-driving technology, and recent reports indicate that Larry Page, CEO of Waymo parent company Alphabet, is determined not to let it slip away. According to The Information's Amir Efrati, Waymo CEO John Krafcik is under pressure to launch a commercial service in the Phoenix metro area as soon as this fall.

But at a Monday event with reporters at Waymo's Castle testing grounds in California's Central Valley, Krafcik was non-committal about the company's launch plans. In fact, he cast doubt on whether a driverless taxi service would even be Waymo's first product, as almost everyone has assumed it would be.

"We'll have to see," Krafcik said, noting that the company was also working on self-driving truck technology. "We're also considering working directly with cities."

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Alphabet leads $1 billion investment in Lyft, but is GM on the way out?

Enlarge / A Lyft-branded car picks up a passenger in San Francisco on June 20, 2015. (credit: Ramin Talaie | Getty Images)

In September, we found out that Alphabet was possibly about to invest in the ride-hailing company Lyft. On Wednesday, Recode reported that the speculation was correct, and Google's parent company is leading a $1 billion round of investment that raises Lyft's valuation to $11 billion. Another Alphabet company, Waymo, is developing self-driving cars and partnered with Lyft earlier this year, presumably for the infrastructure that will allow it to find customers for the service that looks set to launch in Phoenix, Arizona.

As we explained recently, Lyft has been putting together a host of partnerships of late, an Android-like strategy that is positioning the company well for the coming years. Lyft has become a recognized and trusted brand, which is critically important when trying to get customers to choose you over a rival like Uber. Lyft has also inked deals with Jaguar Land Rover and Ford, and General Motors invested $500 million in the company last year.

GM and Lyft were believed to be planning on filling the streets of San Francisco with driverless Bolt electric vehicles in 2018. But according to The Information, that may not be the case. The outlet reported that Cruise—which GM bought for $1 billion in 2016 to develop autonomous vehicles—may work with beleaguered Uber instead as its ride-hailing partner. However, according to Forbes, the automaker says that "nothing has changed in the relationship between GM and Lyft."

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