The Verge: The most important car companies of 2017

Barcelona, 17 January 2017.-  Below we publish the selection of the most important car companies in 2017, according to the journalists of The Verge. In the first two weeks of 2017 The Verge has seen 145 displays of automotive-related technology at CES and over 750 show cars up close at the North American International Auto Show. As the dust settles on the two most important auto industry trade shows, we see clear standouts in the competitive race to connectivity, battery powers, and ultimately, the autonomous cars that will drive our future.

General Motors

A decade ago, General Motors was a symbol for all things ancient in autos. But in 2017, General Motors is poised to be a leader in advancing automotive technology. GM is putting its money in more than marketing the lipservice to move toward progress. Last year GM made a $500 million investment in Lyft, launched its car-sharing service Maven, and sold the first mass-market EV, the Chevy Bolt, to customers. The Detroit automaker has come a long way since it killed the EV1, its first electric car. GM has said it’s well on its way to showing its autonomous vehicle strategy, and while they haven’t revealed specifics on their technical approach, they seem to putting the pieces in place to roll out self-driving cars in viable ways. Under CEO Mary Barra’s leadership, GM is making a conscious effort to diversify its talent pool, which means that it is building a workforce that’s representative of its customer base from the top down, which bodes well for making better decisions in the future. —Tamara Warren

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Waymo

The most important car company at the North American International Auto Show doesn’t even make its own cars. Waymo, the self-driving startup spun off from Google late last year, debuted its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivan at the very beginning of the show. It was a less-than-subtle nod toward the disruptive effects of Silicon Valley on the auto industry over the past few years — and a sign of the outsized role tech companies will play in this space in the years to come. All the big car companies had self-driving cars to show off: Ford, Hyundai, Volvo. But when it comes to technology and data, Google still leads the pack. The search giant’s autonomous cars have traveled 2.5 million miles on public roads, and over a billion in simulation. And its business plan seems more clear cut: by spinning off Waymo, Google abandoned its previous plans to make its own cars. Instead it will cut deals with auto companies like Chrysler and Honda to buy fleets of vehicles in which it can integrate its self-driving tech. The car companies want to sell cars. It’s how they make money. Google can sell transportation, and that seems worth so much more. —Andy Hawkins.

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Nvidia

It’s easy to fall asleep on Nvidia’s importance to the car industry (especially if you’re watching one of its famously interminable keynote presentations), but you shouldn’t. The company might be best known for making graphics chips for gaming PCs, but for the past few years it’s been touting its abilities to power the brains inside self-driving cars. Nvidia is particularly well-positioned to provide the silicon behind autonomous vehicles — the AI and processing needed for it are directly in its wheelhouse. Autonomous driving requires a lot of machine learning, and Nvidia has already proven it can teach a car self-driving tasks in as little as four days. Deals with companies ranging from Audi to ZF are already inked, and many more are sure to come. Nvidia’s logo may never be the ornament on the front of your car grille, but it has a great shot at being under the hood. —Dieter Bohn.

Volvo

While numerous car companies are testing their self-driving cars in controlled environments with engineers on board, Volvo is about to hand over the keys to 100 autonomous XC90s to normal people. These will be the first privately owned (or leased, technically), fully autonomous vehicles. The XC90s will be able to drive on certain highways with zero interaction from the driver. They’ll be able to change lanes and manage any situation they’ll run into. Volvo is investing heavily in self-driving systems, because of its long-held obsession with safety and the belief that an autonomous car will eventually be able to drive more safely than a human. The Swedish firm (owned by Chinese carmaker Geely) has a partnership with Uber to provide its XC90 SUV as an autonomous testing platform. It also has a joint venture called Zenuity with Swedish automotive supplier Autoliv, as part of a strategy to sell its autonomous technology to other automakers. I don’t know who will win the race to sell a self-driving car to the public, but right now, Volvo appears solidly in the lead. —Jordan Golson.

Uber

Uber might not be a car company in the traditional sense, but the five-year-old ride hailing service has become a major transportation option in big cities around the world. But the company has grown so large that smaller cities and municipalities are now considering integrating Uber into their public transportation plans. In some cases, that’s already happening. Uber has the chance, and the choice, to support or cannibalize public transportation infrastructure. Affording citizens more options for getting around is a good thing in theory, but Uber is a private company with private interests, something that’s at odds with the way we demand and receive transparency from governments. How the Silicon Valley startup balances these issues in 2017 will be as important for its success going forward as it will be for the people who use the services it provides. Uber has shown it can provide a good service to the public, now it has to prove that good isn’t just a side effect of the company’s rapid growth. —Sean O’Kane.

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Tesla

Tesla is without a doubt the most important company in the car scene right now — it popularized the electric vehicle. Not only is its product the benchmark in the electronic auto industry, Tesla’s Gigafactory runs off solar power and is a net-zero facility. Tesla is the leader in production of semi-autonomous cars — and, by the way, the cars are fast and beautiful. Tesla also has the ability to make affordable electric cars. New features can come in the form of a software update, and Tesla is backed by a real-life Tony Stark. Tesla is so cool, it’s not even here, and it’s still on everyone’s mind: you can take power from the sun and drive your car with it. What?! —Tyler Pina.

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