Top 5 global hubs for driverless cars

May 06, 2016, 8:56 AM EDT
Driverless car. (Source: Automobile Italia/flickr)
(Source: Automobile Italia/flickr)

The worlds of automobiles and technology are colliding like never before, notably in the field of the self-driving car. But while it's easy enough to name innovators in the tech and vehicle industries, their global locales matter as well.

In no particular order, Blouin News lists the top five countries that are leading the way for the future of the driverless car:

Japan: Many argue that automakers themselves — not technology companies like Google and Apple, which are now just expanding to self-driving cars — are the true pioneers of the self-driving car industry. A recent report from the Intellectual Property and Science division of Thomson Reuters details how Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp.’s patent portfolio boasts the most self-driving car patents while Google (though it leads patents among tech companies) sits at number 26.

Patent data is in Japan’s favor, with the country’s Denso Corp. third on the list of top numbers of self-driving car patents. Toyota has more than 1,400 patents on autonomous-driving vehicles, more than twice as many as any other company.

Sweden: Sweden’s champion of self-driving cars is Volvo. One of the first companies to launch prototypes of self-driving cars around Sweden in 2014, Volvo has since been at the forefront of research and development. The company has long-term plans — and has been vocal about announcing them — for its driverless car scheme, which range from tests with general users to collaboration with Swedish authorities.

Like the U.K. (further down on this list), Sweden has proven open to testing; Volvo is taking tests of autonomous cars to London as well. The company has pressed the Swedish government for regulation so that further tests can go unhindered.

United States: It’s impossible to talk about driverless cars without talking about Silicon Valley, home to Google, Apple, and Tesla (the latter is one of the world’s most innovative auto manufacturers). While Tesla was initially at the forefront of revolutionary auto technology, Google has emerged as one of the biggest innovators in driverless cars, not in small part because of its indefatiguable test drives. Having logged the highest amount of autonomous miles on public roads, according to a Juniper Research study, it trumps Tesla and Apple in this regard.

Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk said earlier this year that he plans to have fully autonomous vehicles on the roads within three years, and the company rolled out its semi-autonomous Autopilot system in October of last year.

And while Apple has been notoriously hush-hush about the creation, trial, or tests of any driverless car, it is one of the most prominent technology companies to have a reported hand in the autonomous vehicle scene.

United Kingdom: The prowess of certain countries in driverless car evolution is not solely related to how many companies they headquarter. The U.K. has paved the way for innovative government regulation of roads and establishment of new traffic policies to accommodate a future that includes many driverless vehicles. In what can be called a comprehensive strategy, the U.K. has not only looked to its European neighbors for innovative hardware in the driverless car industry, but it has made significant efforts to onboard driverless cars with transport changes that give every other country a run for its money.

Britain has also soared past other countries in terms of establishing regulatory pathways for driverless car testing and implementation. (For comparison, public road testing of driverless cars is only legal in eight out of 50 U.S. states as of February.) 

Additionally, Daimler — a British auto maker — has been recognized as an innovator in self-driving car manufacturing.

China: An unlikely champion of the autonomous vehicle, China has joined the race to develop the self-driving car. Whereas it is arguable that the U.S. and Europe possess more of the private sector know-how, as well as better histories of relaxing transport rules to accommodate new technology, China has nonetheless drafted a roadmap for self-driving cars within three to five years, according to Reuters. And vehicles available for driving could arrive this year. 

The government is on board, which makes this plunge a unique one -- China has historically seen foreign technological developments as invasive and dangerous. But China also has a problem with traffic and carbon emissions — two elements that are likely pushing Beijing to seek alternatives such as electric vehicles and other fresh auto tech. If the government sets technical standards and a framework for regulation of self-driving cars before they are readily available, it will mark a new step for the global autonomous vehicle industry.