Racing Towards Autonomous Vehicles – 9/22/16

In spite of years of more experience, Google has yet to launch an autonomous vehicle service to match the practical, less-ambitious programs of rivals like Uber.

Google’s project started in 2009, the same year Uber Technologies Inc. was founded, but it is Uber that recently let users hail autonomous Volvo SUVs in Pittsburgh. Many companies are also offering partially autonomous features in their vehicles like the “auto-pilot” Tesla puts in some of its electric cars.

Part of Uber’s success can be attributed to having more data. Since its service is tied to the smartphones, it has access to significantly more of the driving data used to guide self-driving vehicles. Google could do something similar to commercialize its software by providing it to existing manufacturers or a ride-sharing service. So far, it has not. It struck a deal in May with Fiat Chrysler, but that only to put its software in 100 minivans and talks with other car companies have yet to produce high-volume agreements.

Tech giants, car-makers, and autoparts suppliers are all in the race to develop the hardware and software of tomorrow’s self-driving vehicle.

Many car-makers are pursuing their own self-driving strategies. For example, General Motors Co. has bought out a self-driving software startup and invested $500 million in ride-sharing service Lyft Inc., in hopes of creating its own autonomous vehicle service. In 2017 Volvo, already coordinating with Uber, will test self-driving cars with ordinary motorists as volunteers. And Ford has said it would launch a fully-autonomous car, without steering wheel or pedals, for car-sharing schemes by 2021. Unfortunately for parts-makers, such deals often cut them out of the equation as car-makers invest in in-house production.

Yet, the biggest profits are likely to come from the “operating system” that integrates software and the mechanical parts of the car. And in this area, tech giants like Google still have huge advantages. Uber may be getting more data from its ride sharing fleet, but Google is ahead in machine-learning, the key component in ensuring a car wouldn’t need a driver.

Still, despite having the most experience and most advanced technology, Google’s reluctance tackle early opportunities for application may be giving other companies the chance to take the inside lane on commercializing the technology.

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