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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs