DETROIT - The Motor City is firmly at the front of the auto industry's next revolution.
A new study by Navigant Research rates three companies as leaders in the race to develop and make money on self-driving, autonomous cars and trucks:
_Waymo, the Google company that uses Chrysler minivans and plans to assemble autonomous vehicles in Southeast Michigan.
_General Motors Cruise Automation, which pledges to have autonomous vehicles in commercial service this year.
_Ford, which has kept a relatively low profile while developing a strong technical and business plan.
The study ranks automakers and suppliers on 10 criteria from technical capability to whether they've got a business plan for how to make money on autonomous vehicles, or AVs.
It's titled "Navigant Research Leaderboard: Automated Driving Vehicles: Assessment of Strategy and Execution for 20 Companies Developing Automated Driving Systems."
Rankings for the top three, on a scale of 100:
_Waymo - 86.7
_GM/Cruise Automation - 86.6
_Ford - 84.2
To understand just how tightly packed and far ahead of the field the leaders are, the next three companies are Detroit-based supplier Aptiv (formerly Delphi) at 75.5; Intel-Mobileye, 74.2; and Volkswagen, 73.8.
Trillion with a 't'
The survey doesn't predict who will be the leading maker of self-driving cars, or who will make the most money from the technology Ford CEO Jim Hackett calls the key to a $10-trillion market for autonomous vehicles and the services they'll provide.
"The research looks at which companies are best prepared to commercialize the technology and deploy it in the real world," Navigant senior analyst Sam Abuelsamid said. "GM and Waymo are the farthest along in developing the technology and having a business model to generate cash.
"Ford's not trying to be the first to market. Their goal is to have the right kind of business developed specifically for autonomous service, not an adaptation of an existing vehicle."
Ford's development program with a range of partners has been lower profile than automakers racing to be first to have fully autonomous vehicles in service. The flashy programs that seem to race from announcing one first to another have relied heavily on human backup drivers and offering the service in a very limited area.
"We want to have the business case complete to launch fully driverless vehicles in commercial scale in 2021," Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, said.
The rankings help explain:
_Why outside companies like Honda and SoftBank have agreed to invest up to $5 billion in GM's self-driving Cruise Automation.
_Why GM reshaped its whole engineering process to speed up development of self-driving and electric cars.
_Why Ford is investing hundreds of millions to develop the vehicles in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood.
_Why Volkswagen appears so eager to buy into Ford's autonomous vehicle development program.
"Detroit has the highest concentration of engineers in the country," Richard Wallace, vice president for transportation system analysis at the Center for Automotive Research, said. "The technology companies realized there's a lot they didn't know; they didn't want to literally reinvent the wheel. It's better, faster and cheaper to work with the auto industry."
GM Cruise plans to double employment this year, mostly with engineers based in the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle. The company employs just over 1,000 now.
Waymo's planned local assembly facility is expected to install the latest version of its system in Chrysler minivans, plus Jaguars and Land Rovers.
Tesla is way behind
That gives Fiat Chrysler a second-hand relationship to leadership, in the same way Rochester Adams High School can claim some reflected glamour because Madonna went there. FCA's own development program, which it shares with BMW and Intel, is in the middle of the pack, according to Navigant. It trails other second-tier players like VW, Mercedes, Toyota, Renault-Nissan and China's Baidu.
Navigant rates the BMW-FCA-Intel program ahead of May Mobility, which operates driverless shuttles in downtown Detroit; Volvo; France's Navya; Hyundai, Uber and others.
A couple of high-profile names rank at the bottom of Navigant's standings: Tesla and Apple.
High-profile crashes involving Tesla's misleadingly named Autopilot system and anecdotal customer reports of other problems won Tesla the second-lowest ranking, leading only Apple. Tesla CEO Elon Musk's repeated promises that true self-driving capability is around the corner do not persuade Navigant.
Navigant also is skeptical of suggestions that Apple might build a vehicle, but said the company's energy-efficient processors could be well suited for vehicles. Apple placed last on Navigant's leaderboard, but the company's resources and skill still make it a player to watch.
Partnerships among automakers, suppliers and tech firms are common because AV development is very expensive, particularly at a time when automakers also are spending heavily on electric powertrains and to keep improving current technologies until the revolutionary new vehicles arrive.
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