Innovation

With potential Ford tie-up, Google looks to take back self-driving car lead from Tesla

A new report claims Google and Ford are planning a CES announcement on a new joint venture to make self-driving cars. Here why it's a real possibility and why it matters.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

Driverless cars are swiftly moving from sci-fi fantasy to real world products. The effort has largely been led by companies like Google and Tesla, with the former projecting a public debut of 2020 while the latter surprised the world in 2015 with a $2500 download that made self-driving a feature of the Tesla S. CEO Elon Musk recently upped his timeline for an even-more-fully-automated Tesla to two years.

However, a potential new partnership could further legitimize autonomous vehicles and put Google back on top as the outright leader in the space.

According to Yahoo Autos, Google is preparing to announce a joint venture with Ford Motor Company to build self-driving vehicles using Google's technology. The Yahoo article cites "three sources familiar with the plans" and claims that an official announcement will come at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Like the other major auto manufacturers, Ford has struggled to keep up with the pace of innovation in autonomous vehicles, so the partnership would provide a strategic boost. Ford also has the brand recognition and trust needed to bring self-driving to the masses, being recently voted the most trusted domestic car brand in the US and one of the most trusted auto brands in the UK.

For Google, the move would get their technology into more vehicles without them having to invest large amounts of capital into manufacturing. And, it's clear that Google wants to move the project forward since they'll be structuring their self-driving vehicle division as its own company under the new parent corporation, Alphabet next year—potentially including a carpooling competitor to Lyft or Uber.

When asked what he thought of the potential partnership, Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney said that it makes "lots of sense."

"Google needs the experience of production distribution and marketing, and Ford needs the breakthrough talents of Silicon Valley," Dulaney said.

The Yahoo article also said that the partnership would be structured as a venture legally separate from Ford, partially to deflect any liability associated with autonomous vehicles. The concern over liability has been a major topic in the industry, with manufacturers like Volvo going as far as to state they will take full responsibility for any crashes caused by the technology. However, the Yahoo report also said that the impending deal is "understood to be non-exclusive," as Google has been courting a host of other automakers for quite some time.

As of the time this article was published, this is all simply speculation and the big announcement planned by Ford at CES could just be their deployment of Android Auto to replace the end of the company's partnership with Microsoft SYNC. Still, there are other reasons that a Ford/Google partnership would make sense.

For starters, take a look at the people. In 2014, Ford hired a key GM executive Don Butler, who oversaw projects like OnStar and Cadillac's CUE—one of the many moves they've made to increase their focus on innovation and technology.

On the Google side of things, the head of their car project is John Krafcik, who was the head of product development at Ford from 1990-2004. And, just last year, former Ford CEO Alan Mulally joined Google's board of directors.

It's also clear that Ford wants to play a role in the future of driverless cars. The company recently said that it wants to begin testing its own driverless cars in California in 2016. Additionally, but likely of less consequence, is that fact that Google's own driverless cars—the cartoonish looking ones—were produced by Roush, a Ford supplier.

Regardless of how the partnership pans out, if it is more than just a rumor, the impact would be huge. The technical prowess of Google in the autonomous vehicle space combined with the manufacturing strength and trust of a brand such a Ford could driverless cars a big boost next year.

TechRepublic will be in full force at CES 2016 on January 4-9, and we have meetings set up with Ford at the event. Follow TechRepublic and editor in chief Jason Hiner on Twitter to stay up to date on any potential announcements.

What do you think?

Is a Ford and Google partnership the right move for self-driving cars? Tell us in the comments.

More coverage of Ford's tech journey

About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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