It’s no secret that Ford Motor Corporation are serious about self-driving cars; not only have they made huge investments in their own autonomous vehicle (And ADAS) development program, but recently announced an additional investment of $4.5 billion to bring 13 new electric cars to market by 2020 along with expanding research into batteries: Electrification is considered to be a prerequisite for fully autonomous driving.
Recently Ford has started to talk openly about its autonomous driving research in the past year, including its interest in finding new partners. At the company’s one-year-old Silicon Valley research lab, CEO Mark Fields said Ford’s actively looking to work with startups and bigger companies, and that, that work is a priority for him.
So Yahoo! Autos’ revelation that FORD AND GOOGLE plan to create a joint venture to work on self-driving cars, should come as no surprise. Neither company has confirmed the partnership, but speculation is rife that the announcement is likely to be made at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in the first week of January.
Automakers like Mercedes, Audi, GM, and Tesla offer, or plan to offer, features that let the car do the driving some of the time, using the human as backup in case something goes wrong. This is where Ford has a different approach: Like Google, Ford’s skipping that part, because it comes with a serious challenge: How to safely transfer control between the robot and the human, particularly in an emergency.
Why the partnership in this expensive but vital technology?
But why, after committing to in-house development of the technology, would Ford make this apparent about face? Well, maybe Ford have chosen to short-cut the process by partnering with Google to speed up its automated-driving efforts.
In a December 11th interview Ford Motor Co. CEO, Mark Fields shed further light on Ford’s approach: “It’s not only about what are the things that are going to be core to us, but who are we going to partner with, in some cases. I don’t think we can just be so arrogant to think that we’re going to do everything on our own and we’re going to do something better than maybe a company that does that 24/7. For us, partnerships are really important.”
So what does Google bring to the partnership?
Well, the short answer is quite simply that Google currently has the most advanced and real-world proven technology, with their fleet of vehicles having completed over 1,2 Mio Miles (Albeit with a crash rate of over twice that of the national average for conventional vehicles!), covering 10,000 more each week.
Using Google’s very advanced autonomous software and purpose developed LiDar, Radar and video hardware will save Ford an incredible amount of time and development cost. The norm in the industry is that a potential supplier (or Suppliers) would be paid for development costs, irrespective of whether they were awarded series production: This is a mega cost saving, not to be ignored, and not to mention the years of development Google has invested!
But Google has no clue about the complexities involved in building cars. Therefore it makes sense that Google would want to find an established automaker as a partner, because building cars is a gigantic pain in the neck. You’re talking about tens of thousands of parts that must come together following incredibly strict federal guidelines, through processes that require huge plants and competencies Google’s never needed. Ford’s been doing all that for a century, so it knows a lot that Google doesn’t.
By using Ford-built vehicles, Google would save billions in development costs. It would not have to design, build, test, manufacture and validate cars for safety and emissions. A deal would free the tech giant to focus on developing the automated driving software in use in a fleet of 53 self-driving bubble cars on the road in California and Texas. Those 53 cars, by the way, were assembled in Detroit by Roush Enterprises, a supplier closely aligned with Ford.
Will it be a Foogle, a Gord or a Ford?
Initially Ford could base the self-driving vehicle on one of the automaker’s current platforms, such as the Ford Fusion. But it is more likely the vehicle would be engineered from a clean sheet. And even with that, it could still be produced far faster than if Google tried to build the vehicle itself, said AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.
While Sullivan believes “The vehicle will be built to Google’s specifications, but contain Ford’s FMVSS [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards] know-how,” I disagree. Only the autonomous system functionality and probably most of the hardware required will be under the control of Google. It is highly unlikely that any OEM would allow a first tier supplier (Which is how I see Google’s role in this partnership) to dictate basic vehicle design – it’s more likely that Google would be lead partner in autonomous functionality and the interface with proven vehicle systems.
And this raises another interesting question: Will the Google “partnership” with Ford be exclusive? I doubt it! As stated I believe Google will take the role of first tier supplier to the motor industry. As a first tier supplier it allows them to focus on the lucrative development of system refinement based on customer requirements. Don’t forget they’ve huge development costs that they need to recover before they can turn any profit, and it’s doubtful if Ford would pay for this to own the rights: Especially when they have also made significant investment into the autonomous driving project.
So in my opinion, it’s highly unlikely Ford will be happy providing nothing but wheels, motors, and seats, while Google does all the valuable, exciting work; that path is a shortcut to irrelevance. Bill Ford, the executive chairman and former CEO of the automaker, has said one thing he doesn’t want to see is Ford reduced to the role of a hardware subcontractor for companies doing the more innovative work.