A Google-Ford Partnership Pushes the Evolution of the Driverless Car

(San Jose Mercury News/TNS) -
This 2014 photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
This 2014 photo shows a row of Google self-driving Lexus cars. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

News on Tuesday that Google and Ford will reportedly collaborate on building a driverless car represents a big move forward in the unfolding evolution of autonomous vehicles. But while 2016 promises to be chock-full of more tech innovation insinuating itself into our daily lives, driverless cars will probably not yet be part of the picture.

Apple, Tesla, Google and Nissan are already cranking out prototypes and test-driving autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles around Silicon Valley and beyond. And to have giants like Google and Ford standing together on this innovation is a sign of the big things coming down the road, in this case without drivers, according to analysts following the trends.

Google and Ford “each possess something the other one needs,” said Phil Magney, founder and principal adviser to Vision Systems Intelligence, a research group that works with companies designing and developing autonomous vehicles.

“Obviously, Google brings a tremendous amount of technology to the table, particularly as it relates to autonomous controls. And Ford has been building cars for 100 years, and they bring a lot of know-how regarding these driverless vehicles,” he said.

But roadblocks remain, including tough engineering challenges in rigging a car with the network of sensors that would act as a vehicle’s eyes and ears.

“Building an autonomous car is hard, but developing an autonomous car is even harder,” Magney said. “For example, combining signals from multiple sensors is one of the most complex elements of autonomous control systems.”

There’s also the societal apprehension around driverless cars, pesky and complex legal issues surrounding this nascent industry and government regulations designed to slow down the driverless momentum.

For example, the California Department of Motor Vehicles recently released draft rules governing the use of driverless cars and Google quickly voiced its concerns, saying such rules could slow down the public’s embrace of the new technology. The news underscored the inherent conflict at work: On the one hand, tech firms are chomping at the bit to innovate quickly and be the first out on the road with a driverless car; at the same time, regulators are tasked with making sure the roads we use and the vehicles we ride in are as safe as they possibly can be.

According to California’s proposed regulations, a driverless car would have to have a driver behind the wheel who would be ready to assume control of the car at any moment. The driver would also be responsible if anything happens during the vehicle’s operation, including traffic violations.

Still, the Google-Ford partnership is a big deal. The Yahoo Autos website, citing sources familiar with the plans, said the two companies would work together to build autonomous vehicles with the help of Google’s technology. Official word of the agreement is expected during the Consumer Electronics Show in January. While few details were revealed about the partnership, sources did tell Yahoo that the venture would be a separate legal entity from Ford, presumably to give the automaker some cover from liability concerns that could arise. Also, the arrangement is apparently nonexclusive, not surprising since Google has been in talks with several other carmakers about its autonomous-vehicle technology.

Meanwhile, the work to make driverless cars a reality continues to pick up steam:

Google has been test-driving its autonomous vehicles for six years now, making the driverless cars a common sight in its headquarters city of Mountain View. (Despite a handful of fender-benders, Google blames the mishaps on other drivers, not on its cars.)

Tesla announced in October its autopilot features, which include a forward-looking camera and long-range ultrasonic sensors that “feel” around the car in all directions.

And this past spring, Nissan said it was hoping to have its autonomous vehicles ready to roll by 2020.

If the innovation coming from these and other companies continues apace, autonomous vehicles could account for 10 percent of global vehicle sales by 2035, according to the Boston Consulting Group. The same report said that 44 percent of U.S. consumers polled said they’d consider buying a fully autonomous vehicle within 10 years.