The Fuse

With Chrysler And Ford Deals, Google Continues To Think Big And Start Small On Driverless Cars

May 10, 2016

Guest Post by Chunka Mui | @chunkamui

Chunka Mui is co-founder and Managing Director of The Devil’s Advocate Group and author of “The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies can Out-Innovate Start-Ups”

Within the span of a few weeks, Google’s driverless car team has inked collaborations with two of the Big Three US automakers. On one level, these developments are small steps on Google’s long march towards driverless cars. On another, they could enable a giant leap towards Google’s “moonshot” aspiration of deploying driverless cars.

The first deal was the formation of a lobbying group with Ford, Volvo, Uber and Lyft. The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets aims to push for “one clear set of federal standards…that will facilitate the deployment of self-driving cars.” David Strickland, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), will lead it.

The lobbying coalition emerges at an opportune time. Numerous states are developing regulatory measures affecting driverless cars. The US federal government, however, through the NHSTA, has expressed openness to driverless cars and started efforts to harmonize the patchwork of state regulatory efforts. A diverse coalition, rather than Google as a lone actor, should add credibility to the voices advocating federal standards.

A diverse coalition, rather than Google as a lone actor, should add credibility to the voices advocating federal standards.

Google’s second collaboration is with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to expand Google’s fleet of self-driving test cars. The effort will focus on turning 100 of FCA’s new Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid minivans into driverless vehicles. Rather than retrofitting the vehicles on its own, as Google has previously done, Google and FCA engineers will collaborate “to accelerate the design, testing and manufacturing” of the minivans.

The collaboration with FCA sets the stage for the next generation of Google’s experimental driverless cars. While Google has made enormous progress, it is hard to overestimate the complexity of moving from prototypes to production-quality vehicles. Google skirted many of engineering and regulatory complexities by capping the speed of its current generation of purpose-built, bubble-shaped prototypes to 25 mph. This limits their usefulness, however, for testing higher-speed use cases and as general-purpose vehicles. Working hand-in-hand with Chrysler helps Google apply its learning to date to a new generation car platform.

Expect to see another round of extensive road testing in 2017 with Google driverless minivans if these collaborations go well.

These collaborations also help set the stage for the giant leap from research to deployment of driverless cars by addressing two critical issues, either of which could have become significant roadblocks for Google’s driverless aspirations.

For most its program history, Google has been lonely advocate of the fully autonomous approach. Traditional automakers argued for a semi-autonomous approach, instead. By engaging Ford, Chrysler, Volvo and, indirectly, GM, given GM’s investment in Lyft, Google avoids the challenging scenario of having to fight the unified interests of Big Auto. Avoiding that prospect alone makes these collaborations much more significant than they might otherwise appear.

Also, the Google and FCA deal undoubtedly contains provisions for expanding the collaboration. This would give Google a path to manufacturing and distribution—another big strategic question that has loomed over its commercial aspirations.

Neither Google nor FCA addressed the terms and conditions of a larger partnership. But, given that FCA is one of the weakest traditional automakers relative to driverless cars, I’d guess that Google extracted relatively favorable terms.

The two deals ally potential competitors in common cause on pivotal issues in the deployment of driverless cars. This helps lessen near-term speed bumps and avoid future roadblocks. All in all, it has been a couple of good weeks for driverless cars.