WITH its successful test of robo-taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh last week, Uber has dominated recent headlines on autonomous vehicles. But behind the scenes three groups—technology giants such as Uber, carmakers and a whole fleet of autoparts suppliers—are in a tight race. Each is vying to develop the hardware and software that make up the complex guts of a self-driving vehicle.
A couple of years ago tech firms appeared well ahead in this battle. But, Uber aside, they have dabbed the brakes of late. The recent departure from Google of Chris Urmson, the company’s figurehead for autonomous vehicles and the man who once promised it would put self-driving cars on the road by 2017, is a significant reversal. The recent slimming of the team at Apple that is devoted to building an autonomous electric car, also shows that tech firms are not having it all their own way (though Apple’s possible tie-up with McLaren, a British maker of sports cars and Formula 1 racing team, would be one way to put its carmaking ambitions back on track).
Carmakers, meanwhile, are making more of the running after a slow start. Despite recent safety concerns, Tesla, an electric-car maker, is making progress with its Autopilot system. In 2017 Volvo, which is also working with Uber to get cars to drive themselves, will test self-driving cars by handing them for the first time to a select group of ordinary motorists. And in August, Ford said it would launch a fully-autonomous car, without steering wheel or pedals, for car-sharing schemes by 2021.
All parties recognise that the biggest profits from autonomy will come from producing an “operating system”—something that integrates the software and algorithms that process and interpret information from sensors and maps and the mechanical parts of the car. Tech firms probably have the edge here. But carmakers and suppliers are not giving up easily. So they are involved in a bout of frenzied activity to keep control of the innards of self-driving cars. In July, for example, BMW, Mobileye, an Israeli supplier that specialises in driverless tech, and Intel, the world’s biggest chipmaker, said they were joining forces.
Another strategy for carmakers is to develop autonomous driving in-house. They are hoovering up smaller firms that have useful self-driving technology, notes Andrew Bergbaum of AlixPartners, a consulting firm. Ford has put money into a lidar company (lidar is a type of remote-sensing technology), and into another that sells mapping services. It has also acquired two other firms that specialise in machine-learning and other artificial-intelligence technology.
The losers in this race look likely to be the big parts-makers, whose relationship with their main customers could become strained. Over time carmakers have largely ceded to them the job of developing new technology. If they turn back the clock and reintegrate vertically that may leave less business for the suppliers.
The tech giants still have huge advantages. As well as their financial resources, they are in the best spot to claim the big profits from the operating system. Apple’s plans to build a car may be swiftly revived if it buys McLaren. And Google is ahead in machine-learning, the vital element in developing algorithms that will eventually replace drivers. But carmakers are coming up surprisingly fast on the inside lane.