Ford and Google plan to create a joint venture to work on self-driving cars, according to a report by Yahoo! Autos. Neither company has confirmed the partnership, and Yahoo! reports it will be formally announced at CES next month. But if it’s true, it makes perfect sense.
The setup would use Google’s very advanced autonomous software in Ford cars, playing to each company’s strength. Google’s fleet of self-driving cars has logged more than 1.2-million miles in the past few years, and covers 10,000 more each week. Ford makes and sells millions of cars each year.
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. 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.
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 this month, CEO Mark Fields said Ford’s actively looking to work with startups and bigger companies, and that that work is a priority for him.
Going further (Ford joke), this duo would make sense, because their approaches to autonomous driving are surprisingly similar. Most automakers plan to introduce self-driving technology gradually, adding features one-by-one so humans cede control over time. Google wants nothing to do with that. It’s working on a car with no steering wheel, no pedals, and no role for the human other than sitting still and behaving while the car does the driving.
Automakers like Mercedes, Audi, GM, and Tesla 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. 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.
“Right now, there’s no good answer, which is why we’re kind of avoiding that space,” says Dr. Ken Washington, the automaker’s VP of research and advanced engineering. “We’re really focused on completing the work to fully take the driver out of the loop.” Much like Google, Ford is fast forwarding to full automation, with hopes of offering a no-kidding, fully autonomous car in five years.
All that said, 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.
Asked if Ford would want to use a third party’s software in its car, Washington said he wants the automaker to build its own technology. “We think that’s a job for Ford to do.”