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Will the automotive industry sign up to Google’s plan?

The saying goes: beware of strangers bearing gifts. At the Detroit Motor Show last month, there was a feeling of: beware internet companies bearing software.

That’s what the automotive industry was confronted with after Google laid out the arguments for a push toward fully autonomous cars, and called for more partners to sign up to its vision.

John Krafcik, the former Hyundai US chief executive who joined Google last September, was the industry insider tasked with reaching out to other delegates at the conference. He said that the ‘audacious goal’ of full autonomy – push a button to get from A to B without ever switching between the technology and driver control – was what drew him to join Google.

Key to that revolution will be the car makers themselves, whom Google needs to sign up to its vision. Google has been rumoured to be working with Ford, but tried to appeal to other manufacturers with the offer of an easy route to an autonomous future.

As Re/Code, the technology industry website, wrote: ‘If Google can convince the automotive industry — and, perhaps more critically, automotive regulators — that this is a safer approach, then that better positions its business interest.’

The key is, of course, in those last three words. Most car makers have their own internal projects, but few can compete with the software expertise or scale of Google, which is already presumed to be streets ahead. That is important for Google, which cannot rely on sales of smartphones and gadgets to continue ad infinitum.

Apple’s head of development for their own secretive electric car project is reportedly on the move, suggesting a period of disruption, at the very least, for the iPhone maker’s own plans. That makes it tempting for car makers to get into bed with Google, but some are calling for patience.

Richard Windsor, a telecoms specialist that runs the Radio Free Mobile blog, said: ‘I see this as a Trojan horse for Google to disrupt the automotive industry and turn automakers from brands into Android handsets on wheels.’ He said a move to work with Google may feel appropriate in the short-term, while autonomous vehicles are niche, but could be ‘very dangerous’ to the long-term profitability of the automotive industry and its business model.

There is an assumption that autonomous vehicles will be taking over as soon as 2020, but the hype cycle and reality are not always in sync. It could be 2030 before they are a real force on our roads, which provides car manufacturers with a decent window in which to think outside the Google box.

Until then, they’ll probably be driving carefully, wary of any internet companies bearing software.

- Nic Fildes, Technology & Communications Editor at The Times.

(Image Source, Google Inc.)

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