The word on streets of Silicon Valley is that Google and Ford are planning on teaming up to build autonomous cars. If it’s true, it would be the automotive equivalent of Batman and Spiderman joining forces to fight crime.
Yahoo Autos broke the story late yesterday, citing three unidentified sources (neither Google nor Ford would confirm it), prompting speculation from a slew of analysts about what the alliance would mean for the auto industry. According to the piece, Google and Ford are expected to make the announcement about their joint venture at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
“It’s logical that Google would want to find an established automaker as a partner, because building cars is a gigantic pain in the neck,” wrote Wired’s Alex Davies.
Google has in recent months been cherry-picking Ford veterans. John Krafcik, the newish head of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, was Hyundai America's CEO but before that spent 14 years at Ford. And former Ford CEO Alan Mulally is a Google board member.
Sam Abuelsamid is a former engineer turned automotive analyst--and now Forbes.com columnist--who’s been an IndustryWeek source for stories on autonomous driving. Abuelsamid said in his column today that the strategy makes sense for both companies. He argues that Google has made “tremendous progress” on developing and advancing autonomous technology, but not much on monetizing it. And Ford has been dabbling in car-sharing and working on reshaping itself as a smart mobility company, feeling the pressure to diversify beyond the individual car ownership model to keep up with increasing population density in cities and address environmental concerns.
Abuelsamid sees the two companies pairing up first not on a self-driving car, but on a fleet of autonomous vehicles to shuttle people around controlled environments like college and commercial campuses. GM is developing something similar for its Warren, Mich., tech campus. He’s not as keen on the possibility of autonomous cars hitting the open streets en masse anytime soon, because of the “mismatch between the ways that people and computers drive.”
Last week, Ford announced that it had received the necessary permits to begin test driving an autonomous version of its Fusion on California streets.
Ford ranked just below the leading group of automotive contenders—Daimler, Audi, BMW, and GM--in an autonomous vehicle study by Navigant Research back in October. David Alexander, the study’s author, told IndustryWeek at the time that “Ford is literally on the cusp of popping into the leadership, because they’ve had a history of bringing adaptive capabilities into higher volume vehicles. They’ve not been the first to get it out there, but they’ve made it more widely available.”
Yahoo Autos reported the deal between Ford and Google “is understood to be non-exclusive: Google has been talking to several other automakers for some time about using its self-driving systems.” Similarly, Richard Wallace, the director of the Center for Automotive Research’s Transportation Systems Analysis group, told IndustryWeek in September that Google and Apple were very close to partnering with auto companies, having signed collaborative agreements “with one or more.”