News / Science & Technology

Google, Detroit Diverge on Road Map for Self-driving Cars

FILE - A Google self-driving car goes on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif, May 14, 2014.
FILE - A Google self-driving car goes on a test drive near the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif, May 14, 2014.
Reuters

In 2012, a small team of Google Inc engineers and business staffers met with several of the world's largest car makers, to discuss partnerships to build self-driving cars.

In one meeting, both sides were enthusiastic about the futuristic technology, yet it soon became clear that they would not be working together. The Internet search company and the automaker disagreed on almost every point, from car capabilities and time needed to get it to market to extent of collaboration.

It was as if the two were “talking a different language,” recalls one person who was present.

As Google expands beyond Web search and seeks a foothold in the automotive market, the company's eagerness has begun to reek of arrogance to some in Detroit, who see danger as well as promise in Silicon Valley.

For now Google is moving forward on its own, building prototypes of fully autonomous vehicles that reject car makers' plans to gradually enhance existing cars with self-driving features. But Google's hopes of making autonomous cars a reality may eventually require working with Detroit, even the California company acknowledges. The alternative is to spend potentially billions of dollars to try to break into a century-old industry in which it has no experience.

“The auto companies are watching Google closely and trying to understand what its intentions and ambitions are,” said one person familiar with the auto industry, who asked to remain anonymous because of sensitive business relationships.

“Automakers are not sure if Google is their friend or their enemy, but they have a sneaking suspicion that whatever Google's going to do is going to cause upheaval in the industry.”

No steering wheel

Analysts estimate Google has invested tens of millions of dollars in an effort that's ultimately a side project. But car companies, all too familiar with the devastating financial and brand damage of recalls, would see any hiccups with the self-driving car as a threat to their main business.

Nowhere is the disconnect more evident than in Google's latest prototype. Two people sit abreast in the tiny pod-shaped car, which has a flexible windshield for safety and is topped by a spinning cone that helps navigation. The electric vehicles, unveiled in May, are limited to a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour and do away with several decades-long constants in motoring: the steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator pedal.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin has described self-driving cars as an on-demand service that consumers summon when needed. That would represent a seismic shift from a longstanding model based on individual ownership, an annual $375 billion U.S. market according to J.D. Power.

Moreover, a study by consulting firm KPMG last year found that American consumers would trust brands like Google and Apple more for self-driving cars than they would automakers.

General Motors' global product development chief Mark Reuss recently said Google could become a “very serious competitive threat.”

Evolution versus revolution

Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car group, would not discuss any negotiations with automakers but argues that self-driving cars will benefit car companies and consumers by expanding the number of car users.

“I'm confident that when there is technology that makes sense, and when there is a business model that makes sense, that there will be interest and partnerships” with car makers, Urmson told Reuters in an interview.

Self-driving cars can free people to do more of the things that earn Google money, such as Web search. But Urmson said Google is still figuring out how to make a profit from the technology.

“I would imagine that this is probably different than just making more time for people to click on web sites,” he said.

Car makers such as GM, Mercedes and Volvo have been developing their own autonomous vehicle technology for years.

But most favor an incremental approach to self-driving cars, in which features such as lane centering and parking assistance are gradually integrated into vehicles. Car makers are also hesitant to invest in new features until they are certain there is enough demand to pay for them.

That approach and car makers' long development process are at odds with Google's ambition to create a fully autonomous car in one swoop. The Internet company seemed to have little patience for Detroit, according to people involved in the 2012 talks with automakers.

“There was a certain amount of arrogance on the Google side, in the sense of 'We know what we're doing, you just help us,”' said a second person, representing a major car maker, who was involved in discussions with Google.

“We'd say, 'Well you don't really know that much. And we're not going to put our name on a project like that because if something goes wrong, we have a lot more to lose.”'

Another potential sticking point is maps developed by Google and essential for its robo-cars to operate, says Sven Strohband, a robotics expert who worked at Volkswagen until 2006 and was not involved in the discussions. That data, compiled by Google, can be extraordinarily detailed, down to the height of curbs or location of signs.

“The question is who owns the data,” he said. “You need to have frequent map updates and your car can only go where you have really accurate map data.”

Without a driver to blame when accidents happen, the vehicles could bring greater liability for car makers.

Google's assurances to one car maker that it would take responsibility for accidents due to its technology, and that the data collected by the cars makes it easy to pinpoint fault, was dismissed, according to the first person involved in the 2012 discussions.

“I just couldn't believe my ears and was like 'Wow you live in a bubble,”' the person said. “Car makers never get to decide who is at fault. It's the lawyers, the judge and the jury.”

Starting small

Whether Google opts to license its technology or seeks to build cars to its specifications, Google will need Detroit for the last mile, say industry experts and insiders.

Google has made headway in less sensitive areas such as entertainment and navigation. In January, Google teamed up with GM, Audi, Honda and Hyundai to form the Open Automotive Alliance to incorporate its Android operating system, the software for mobile phones and tablets, into cars.

And it has taken steps to understand regulations better, hiring Ron Medford, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's former Deputy Director, in November 2012.

“My view on this is both parties probably need each other,” said Strohband, now Chief Technology Officer at venture capital firm Khosla Ventures.

A source at one automaker said the company talks to Google on a weekly basis about auto matters, though they have not partnered on self-driving cars.

Some in the industry predict fully automated cars will be available as soon as 2020, though research firm IHS Automotive does not expect the cars to be widely available until 2035. For now, Google is starting small with 100 to 200 prototype cars. It wouldn't identify manufacturing partners, though industry reports pinpoint Michigan-based Roush Enterprises, which assembles small volumes of custom vehicles such as race cars. Roush declined comment.

To build anything more than a couple thousand cars would likely require an automaker partner. Industry insiders point to critical systems such as steering and suspension, the intricacies of working with hundreds of suppliers and high-volume production at consistent levels of reliability as skills that cannot be learned overnight.

While Tesla Motors offers an example of an outsider breaking into the business, the electric car maker has benefited from a hefty government loan and from having access to the shuttered GM-Toyota NUMMI car manufacturing plant in Fremont, California.

The cost to launch a new car model, including costs of developing and tooling, is generally $1 billion to $1.5 billion. For a company starting from scratch, such as Google, that cost would likely be higher, say auto industry experts.

Some industry observers have suggested that Google should pair up with Tesla, which is also developing self-driving technology and which shares Google's Silicon Valley mindset. With roughly $60 billion in cash, Google could also acquire a smaller auto company, some speculate, though they note that such a move would involve more ongoing costs, liabilities and cultural challenges then Google may be willing to accept.

“Google is the 800-pound gorilla in the room and nobody wants to miss the boat,” said Edwin Olson, assistant professor of computer science at the University of Michigan, who works with Ford on an automated vehicle project. “But at the same time I don't think automakers want Google to be dictating terms if the time comes and Google is the only game in town.” 

You May Like

US Imposes Sanctions on Alleged Honduran Drug Gang

Treasury department alleges Los Valles group is responsible for smuggling tens of thousands of kilograms of cocaine into US each month More

At 91, Marvel Creator Stan Lee Continues to Expand his Universe

Company's chief emeritus hopes to interest new generation of children in superheroes of all shapes and sizes by publishing content across multiple media platforms More

Photogallery New Drug Protects Against Virus in Ebola Family

Study by researchers at University of Texas Medical Branch, Tekmira Pharmaceuticals is first looking at drug's effectiveness after onset of symptoms More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebolai
X
George Putic
August 20, 2014 8:57 PM
While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Ferguson Calls For Justice as Anger, Violence Grips Community

Violence, anger and frustration continue to grip the small St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. Protests broke out after a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black teenager on August 9. The case has sparked outrage around the nation and prompted the White House to send U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to the small community of just over 20,000 people. VOA’s Mary Alice Salinas has more from Ferguson.
Video

Video Beheading Of US Journalist Breeds Outrage

U.S. and British authorities have launched an investigation into an Islamic State video showing the beheading of kidnapped American journalist James Foley by a militant with a British accent. The extremist group, which posted the video on the Internet Tuesday, said the murder was revenge for U.S. airstrikes on militant positions in Iraq - and has threatened to execute another American journalist it is holding. Henry Ridgwell has more from London.
Video

Video Family Robots - The Next Big Thing?

Robots that can help us with daily chores like cooking and cleaning are a long way off, but automatons that serve as family companions may be much closer. Researchers in the United States, France, Japan and other countries are racing to build robots that can entertain and perform some simpler tasks for us. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video In Ukraine, Fear and Distrust Remain Where Fighting has Stopped

As the Ukrainian military reclaims control of eastern cities from pro-Russian separatists, residents are getting a chance to rebuild their lives. VOA's Gabe Joselow reports from the town of Kramatorsk in Donetsk province, where a sense of fear is still in the air, and distrust of the government in Kyiv still runs deep.
Video

Video Five Patients Given Experimental Ebola Drug Said to Be Improving

The World Health Organization has approved the use of experimental treatments for Ebola patients in West Africa. The Ebola outbreak there is unprecedented, the disease deadly. The number of people who have died from Ebola has surpassed 1,200. VOA's Carol Pearson reports on the ethical considerations of allowing experimental drugs to be used.
Video

Video China Targets Overseas Assets of Corrupt Officials

As China presses forward with its anti-graft effort, authorities are targeting corrupt officials who have sent family members and assets overseas. The efforts have stirred up a debate at home on exactly how many officials take that route and how likely it is they will be caught. Rebecca Valli has this report.
Video

Video Leading The Fight Against Islamic State, Kurds Question Iraqi Future

Western countries including the United States have begun arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in northern Iraq to aid their battle against extremist Sunni militants from the Islamic State. But there are concerns that a heavily-armed Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, might seek to declare independence and cause the break-up of the Iraqi state. As Henry Ridgwell reports from London, the KRG says it will only seek greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Video

Video In Rural Kenya, Pressure Builds Against Female Circumcision

In some Kenyan communities, female genital mutilation remains a rite of passage. But activists are pushing back, with education for girls and with threats of punishment those who perform the circumcision. Mohammed Yusuf looks at the practice in the rural eastern community of Tharaka-Nithi.

AppleAndroid