For automakers, forging a partnership with a tech firm or buying a promising startup can give them an edge — or a way to hedge their bets in case in-house efforts are falling behind.
(TNS) — In the fierce competition to perfect self-driving cars, almost no one wants to go it alone.
Big automakers with autonomous vehicle programs have forged alliances with tech companies that, in many cases, are working on the same thing.
Silicon Valley companies, which often prefer designing products to building them, have sought out dance partners with decades of manufacturing experience, even as they fight among themselves over patents and personnel.
The last two years have seen a frenzy of deal-making. This month alone, chipmaker Nvidia announced a partnership with Toyota; BMW reported an alliance with both Intel and auto parts supplier Delphi; and the ride service Lyft teamed up with Waymo, the self-driving car division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
For the automakers, forging a partnership with a tech firm or buying a promising startup can give them an edge — or a way to hedge their bets in case in-house efforts are falling behind.
“If they perceive this will get them to where they want to be six months earlier, it may be worth it,” said Ed Hellwig, senior editor at the Edmunds.com auto information service.
He also suspects it’s a way for the established car companies to show Wall Street that they’re on top of a change that could soon revolutionize their business.
“They’re buying some of these companies and investing, if only to change the public perception that they’re not doing enough,” Hellwig said.
See a guide to the increasingly complicated web of alliances.
Google kicked off the heated race to create self-driving cars when it first showed off its bubble-shape autonomous prototype in 2010. Now the Mountain View giant has renamed its self-driving effort Waymo and is forging alliances to bring its technology to market.
The most fruitful of those partnerships, so far, is with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which agreed last year to integrate Waymo’s sensors and software into specially made Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Last month, Waymo CEO John Krafcik said his company would add 500 robot Pacificas to the 100 already running tests on public roads. Waymo is also asking for volunteers in Phoenix who want to ride the Pacificas on a regular basis.
In December, Honda reported that it was in talks to tap Waymo’s technology, although Honda has its own in-house autonomous driving program.
And on May 14, Waymo and San Francisco ride-hailing service Lyft acknowledged their partnership, although few details have been released. Bear in mind, Waymo is locked in a bitter legal fight with Lyft’s much larger San Francisco rival, Uber, whose self-driving program was until recently led by a former Google engineer. Lyft and Uber both want to use robot taxis.
Uber has been particularly aggressive in its deal-making, although one of the arrangements led to the courtroom fight with Waymo.
That would be Uber’s $680 million purchase in August of Otto, a self-driving truck startup founded by Anthony Levandowski, formerly of Google. (In 2013, Google took a stake in Uber, but that relationship soured some time ago.) Waymo has accused Levandowski and Uber of conspiring to steal trade secrets. Uber has denied any knowledge of the engineer’s alleged misdeeds.
August turned out to be a busy month for Uber. The company agreed to sell its China operations to Chinese rival Didi Chuxing — which is also developing autonomous vehicles — in return for an 18 percent stake in Didi. And Volvo agreed to build cars capable of incorporating Uber’s self-driving technology, with the two companies devoting a combined $300 million to the effort.
In January, Uber and German auto giant Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, reached an agreement for the ride service to use Daimler’s self-driving cars on its network.
In addition to the new partnership with Waymo, Lyft has another big ally in the self-driving race: General Motors. The Detroit automaker invested $500 million in Lyft in January 2016, citing a shared vision of on-demand autonomous vehicles. Five months later, GM placed an even bigger bet on self-driving technology, buying San Francisco startup Cruise Automation for $1 billion. Cruise has installed its autonomous technology in a fleet of electric Chevy Bolts now circling San Francisco streets on a daily basis.
Not to be outdone, Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark Fields announced last year at the company’s fast-growing Silicon Valley lab that it would start making robot taxis by 2021. And in February, Ford said it would invest $1 billion for a majority stake in Argo AI, a Pittsburgh robotics company stocked with veterans of Google, Uber and Carnegie Mellon University.
Ford also joined with Chinese Internet giant Baidu last year to invest a combined $150 million in Velodyne , a Morgan Hill company that makes lidar (the laser equivalent of radar) for self-driving vehicles. Velodyne then used some of that money to open a factory in San Jose. Baidu, meanwhile, is also developing autonomous vehicles.
Sensing a huge new market for their goods, chipmakers Intel and Nvidia, both of Santa Clara, have been avidly seeking out partners among the automakers.
Intel agreed in March to spend a stunning $15.3 billion for Mobileye, an Israeli company whose software interprets images from the cameras now embedded in many cars. And on Tuesday, Intel joined an alliance with BMW and Delphi, one of the world’s largest auto-parts suppliers, to create a self-driving platform. Delphi already has a pilot project to operate self-driving taxis in Singapore. BMW joined with automakers Daimler and Audi last year to buy digital mapping company Here for $3.1 billion. (Intel announced in January that it would acquire a 15 percent stake in Here for an undisclosed amount.)
Nvidia formed a partnership with Toyota this month to develop autonomous driving systems. Nvidia already has a long-running partnership with Audi on self-driving technology and supplies chips to Tesla, which has largely avoided partnerships with its self-driving rivals.
In January, Nvidia announced a joint effort with Mercedes-Benz to develop a car together in 12 months.
©2017 the San Francisco Chronicle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.