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July 3, 2017, 7:11 p.m. EDT

Alphabet’s Waymo is winning the race for self-driving cars — and Apple is far behind

Baidu and Tesla are also speeding ahead, while Daimler is one to watch

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By Jeff Reeves, MarketWatch

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Cruising along


While plenty of tech giants are trying to get in on autonomous cars, don’t think all traditional auto makers are just waiting to be bailed out by Silicon Valley. Honda Motor Co. /zigman2/quotes/207173990/composite HMC +2.21%   /zigman2/quotes/200490352/delayed JP:7267 +1.00%  began testing self-driving cars at a mothballed San Francisco military base back in 2015 , and in 2016 semiautonomous technology including lane assist and forward collision warnings came standard in every luxury vehicle sold under Honda’s Acura nameplate.

The company recently said it is committed to achieving “Level 4” autonomous driving by 2025 , or where onboard systems can handle the majority of driving situations without human intervention. It’s later than some of the forerunners, yes, but Honda seems to be placing a priority on caution and safety in this emerging field. That may prevent it from being first, but may ensure it has the right tech when its solutions come to market.

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Most consumers think of a self-driving electric sedan when they think of what technology can offer. But Mercedes-Benz manufacturer Daimler AG /zigman2/quotes/203566154/delayed DDAIF +0.08%   /zigman2/quotes/205332368/delayed DE:DAI +1.71%  has a much bigger plan. Late last year, the company took an autonomous 18-wheeler on the open road — a tremendous feat for its Highway Pilot technology. What’s equally impressive is that the big rig wasn’t built to be autonomous, but was simply fitted with the necessary software and hardware.

The consumer market may be larger and perhaps more lucrative, but don’t discount the potential of being a player in the world of autonomous freight and logistics. Daimler said its gear could be ready for prime time by 2020, presuming the legal framework is in place for such technology. That could be a game changer for businesses as well as individual drivers.

Falling behind


While Apple Inc. /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +1.79%  isn’t quite as far along as Google in its self-driving-car efforts, the company did announce this week that it will partner with Hertz Global Holdings Inc.  to test autonomous technology of its own. But details show the deal is for a measly few SUVs , hardly an impressive ramp to the half-dozen other vehicles Apple has been testing in California for the past year.

While there has long been speculation on an Apple Car under the code name Project Titan, it has become increasingly clear that the tech giant is more focused on artificial intelligence and software , despite its hardware roots. Costly overhead and a lack of tangible results have caused some investors to question whether Apple will ever deliver, and investors who have already been biting their nails over the high-stakes iPhone launch this year may not want to give Tim Cook & Co. leeway on this project for much longer.

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Early backers of yet-to-IPO Uber have long seen the promise of self-driving taxis. But the high hopes of previous years has given way to more sordid dramas and practical challenges that are making innovation in 2017 more difficult. That includes the ouster of CEO Travis Kalanick amid allegations of sexual misconduct at the highest levels of the company, but it also includes the bottom-line practicalities of increased competition from competitors like Lyft that have stepped up recently.

Read: Uber must raise fares — and do 5 more things — to survive

For a young company like Uber that’s still bleeding cash, it’s risky to plow money aggressively into self-driving cars even as it still trying to assert its dominance in the nascent arena of ride sharing. Adding fuel to the fire is a late-2016 rollout of autonomous driving tests in Pittsburgh that soured in a hurry , leaving local politicians and community leaders questioning the wisdom of continuing the experiment.

Uber may have a lot of smart people and a good launchpad for self-driving cars, but it also has some serious challenges that it needs to sort out before it worries about where autonomous driving technology will be in a decade’s time.

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Jeff Reeves is the editor of Follow him on Twitter @JeffReevesIP.

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