Google's driverless cars future at odds with automakers

  • Google Inc., with its vision for a future where cars drive themselves, is putting itself at odds with an auto industry that shares its desire for safer, less- congested roads -- yet won't abide the "driverless" part.

    Google Inc., with its vision for a future where cars drive themselves, is putting itself at odds with an auto industry that shares its desire for safer, less- congested roads -- yet won't abide the "driverless" part. File Photo

Bloomberg News
Updated 9/15/2014 7:44 AM

Google Inc., with its vision for a future where cars drive themselves, is putting itself at odds with an auto industry that shares its desire for safer, less- congested roads -- yet won't abide the "driverless" part.

The clash pits the Internet giant, public for barely a decade, against companies that spent a century building the machines that put people behind the wheel of autos. As Google works to perfect a system in research labs and road tests to minimize the involvement of drivers, automakers spend billions of dollars annually on ads to do the opposite. Think BMW and its claims to the Ultimate Driving Machine, or Volkswagen and its Drivers Wanted sales pitch.


The differences are more than philosophical.

Google is sweeping up top talent and research, powered by an almost $400 billion stock-market value that tops those of Toyota Motor Corp., Volkswagen AG and General Motors Co. combined. It's also keeping a tight grip on its mapping data and potential marketing plans for cars while helping to create what many in the auto industry consider unrealistic expectations for how quickly cars can safely become wholly driverless.

"Clearly there's some sort of tension there," said Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Google's splashy displays of technology "lead to expectations creep that's probably unrealistic in some ways," he said.

Google's aloofness was on display at last week's Intelligent Transport Systems World Congress in Detroit. The search giant had minimal presence at the annual event where automakers hash out standards for the technology that would keep, at the center of it all, the driver.

The 'G-Word'

Within the industry, Google is sometimes the unmentionable presence in the room -- the "G-word," as Wallace jokingly called it at a conference last month in Traverse City, Michigan.

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Among the advancements automakers announced at last week's conference in Detroit was GM's "Super Cruise" system for 2017 Cadillacs, which will let drivers take their hands off the steering wheel and feet from the pedals for periods of highway driving. Like technology being developed by Toyota, Honda Motor Co. and other companies, GM's system hands control back and forth between driver and vehicle.

The approach that Mountain View, California-based Google is taking is, literally, much more hands-off. In May it unveiled plans to deploy at least 100 fully autonomous, two-seat, egg- shaped test cars with a top speed of 25 miles (40 kilometers) per hour and no steering wheel. Google has since said it will include one, as well as brake and gas pedals, as California requires.

Google Talent

Aided by early staffing with top Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University scientists who won a U.S.-backed driverless vehicle challenge in 2005, Google recruited dozens of robotics and artificial-intelligence researchers, and is adding more.

Google has won or applied for 96 autonomous-driving patents since 2011 and has hired talent from Toyota, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG, Daimler AG's Mercedes-Benz and even Silicon Valley upstart Tesla Motors Inc., according to LinkedIn profiles. For high-level advice, Google can turn to former Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally, now a board member.


It's also backed by more than $60 billion in cash, more than any individual automaker can muster.

"When you're at Google's scale you do plenty of things that disrupt or change the environment," said Frank Gillett, analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "We now have a race for who's going to build the software and services platform that operates driverless cars."

Societal Benefits

While the effort is still in an early phase, executives including co-founder Sergey Brin have committed Google to making driverless cars a reality. They tout societal benefits of robotic cars, such as a transportation option for the blind and elderly.

To traditional manufacturers, anything that makes human drivers superfluous is automotive heresy.

"Driving is essentially very fun," Ken Koibuchi, general manager of intelligent vehicle development for Toyota, said in an interview in Detroit this month. For that and reasons including liability issues in the case of an accident and yet- to-be-set regulations, the world's largest carmaker isn't planning a driverless car even as it adds automated features.

"Rather than making it seem like the driver can simply take a nap while sitting at the wheel, we need drivers to understand that there will be task-sharing involved, handing controls back and forth, and that overconfidence must be avoided," Koibuchi said.

Nissan Motor Co., Mercedes and Tesla are among those that have said they'll add self-driving features by end of the decade. None has said how much it's spending to do that.

More Investment

"They've kind of shamed the automakers into investing more money into this," said Egil Juliussen, research director for advanced driving systems for IHS Automotive. "R&D budgets for all major auto companies have jumped a lot since this started. They're literally being forced by Google to invest more to show they aren't falling too far behind."

While Google's cash pile tops that of individual automakers, Toyota's $41 billion, Volkswagen's $44 billion and GM's $29 billion ensure they can fund technology advances.

That gives manufacturers the resources to provide a counterbalance to Google, said William "Red" Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

"No one has a monopoly on this technology," Whittaker said. "The big global OEMs, they run deep, they run strong, and they aren't fooling around."

Accelerated Efforts

To speed its efforts, Toyota in January created an intelligent-vehicle system group that Koibuchi manages to bring automated driving features to market as quickly as possible.

Toyota is also among the automakers and suppliers funding the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center in Ann Arbor, intended to be the largest research center in North America for automated driving systems.

GM, Ford, Honda and Nissan are also MTC backers, as are parts-makers Delphi Automotive Plc, Denso Corp. and Robert Bosch LLC, Verizon Communications Inc. and Xerox Corp.

Google so far hasn't joined that effort. It also hasn't specified whether it will build and sell driverless cars; create a service using such vehicles; or supply its driverless technology to the auto industry.

'Low Margin'

Producing its own vehicles would "be silly," Juliussen said. "The car industry is a low-margin business. The best companies get 10 percent profit margin," he said. "Why would they want to enter the business even if the revenue may be tremendously high?"

Google declined to comment on industry criticism or how its driverless program will evolve. Brin said in May at the Re/code conference in Palos Verdes, California, that the company "will work with partners in the future, including automotive companies," without elaborating.

Google drew some criticism at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco in July from audience members who said it's not sharing mapping data with carmakers designing their own systems and has made some academic research on driverless vehicles inaccessible.

Standardized maps are needed as robotic vehicles advance, Seigo Kuzumaki, Toyota's chief technology officer secretary, said in Detroit.

"It's better to have maps that are industrywide, rather than just individually owned and operated," Kuzumaki said.

Automakers' efforts to find software talent is also affected by Google's speed in hiring, Toyota's Koibuchi said.

"Computer vision or artificial intelligence are needed, and that kind of technology is not familiar to us for now so we need to hire new people," he said. "To hire new people in each area is more difficult."

--With assistance from Tim Higgins in San Francisco and Susan Decker in Washington.

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