3 Top Driverless Car Stocks to Buy Now

By Chris Neiger Markets Fool.com

I won't bore you with the statistics about self-driving cars. At least, not yet. First, consider this 2015 quote about the future of driverless cars from Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk:

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You'll be able to tell your car, "Take me home," go here, go there, or anything, and it'll just do it. It'll be an order of magnitude safer than a person. In the distant future, people may outlaw driving cars because it's too dangerous. You can't have a person driving a two-ton death machine.

Image source: Getty Images.

That opinion may seem a bit extreme to some, but self-driving cars have the potential to reduce vehicular deaths by (here come the stats now) 90% by mid-century. In the U.S. alone, that means nearly 30,000 lives would be saved every year.

That's one of the reasons why so many automakers and technology companies are investing billions of dollars to get autonomous vehicles on the road, and why investors should pay attention. To help you get started in the space, let's look at three companies that are each taking different approaches to the self-driving car market -- and that have lots of potential to benefit from it.

Intel

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Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) wasn't exactly the first company people were thinking about in this space until very recently. That changed when it purchased the leader inadvanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), Mobileye (NYSE: MBLY), for $15.3 billion.

That's a hefty price tag, but what Intel is getting for it may end up being worth it. Advanced driver assistance systems -- with features such as lane detection and correction, automatic braking, and automatic speed adjustments -- are the precursors to much of the technology that will underlie fully autonomous vehicles, and Mobileye has about 65% of the ADAS market. Purchasing it gave Intel a central position in autonomous vehicle technologies that it didn't have just a month ago; it could also help the company sell more of its processors.

Processorsfor PCs have been Intel's No. 1 revenue driver, but with sales of desktops and laptops continuing to decline, the company has been looking for new segments that it can sell its chips to. The automotive semiconductor market is expected to reach $36 billion by 2018,and if Intel can use Mobileye to both sell self-driving technologies to automakers and boost sales of its own processors, then the company may have finally found its next big market opportunity.

Qualcomm

If Intel's pending purchase of Mobileye signals a move from the post-PC and post-mobile era for chipmakers, then consider Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM)one of theleaders of that movement.

At the end of last year, Qualcomm made a $39 billion bid for NXP Semiconductors (NASDAQ: NXPI), which is still pending. The move would do much to bring Qualcomm into the driverless car space by adding NXP's own self-driving technologies to the chipmaker's lineup.

NXP debuted an off-the-shelf driverless car system last year called BlueBox, which includessensors, cameras, algorithms, and processors that allow cars to function at Level 4 automation by 2020. (Level 5 is the highest classification for a fully autonomous vehicle.)

Qualcomm has hit a few bumps as it works to close the NXP deal, but that appears to still be on track to happen later this year. When it does, Qualcomm could end up in a similar position to Intel, with a handful of key driverless car technologies in its arsenal and new opportunities to sell its processors into driverless cars.

Tesla

I couldn't lead off this list with an Elon Musk quote without eventually talking about everything Tesla is doing in the semi-autonomous car space.

First of all, Tesla has added driverless car hardware to all of its new vehicles, and has been rolling out software updates as they are developed to bring new semi-autonomous features to vehicle owners.Tesla is the only automaker that's taking such a bold step with semi-autonomous hardware, which could end up helping the company take the lead in driverless cars a few years from now.

Musk mentioned in the second version of his Tesla Master Plan last year that vehicles owners will be able to "summon your Tesla from pretty much anywhere. Once it picks you up, you will be able to sleep, read or do anything else enroute to your destination." Tesla is still a while away from that goal, but it's clearly positioning itself as the leading semi-autonomous automaker.

The driverless car market is expected to be worth $77 billion by 2035, but there are plenty of things that could end up holding these companies back. Still, investors would be wise to consider the above companies when looking at driverless car stocks -- and remember that patient investors will likely see the biggest returns.

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Chris Neiger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Qualcomm and Tesla. The Motley Fool recommends Intel and NXP Semiconductors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.