Auto’s Moon Shot
Automakers and suppliers are increasingly partnering with each other, competitors, tech companies and startups to reduce costs and ensure they have the proper expertise and resources to develop the necessary technologies needed for next-generation vehicles. The trend includes a mix of equity investments, joint ventures, tech agreements and consortiums.
“This topic is too large to be solved by one company,” attests Kay Stepper, vice president of automated driving for Bosch’s North American operations. He points to Bosch’s partnerships with TomTom on high-definition maps and Sony on vision systems, both of which are key technologies for self-driving vehicles. Sony, an expert in consumer electronics, can help speed the development of Bosch’s driver-assist cameras, which Stepper expects to quickly progress from one- and two-megapixel image processing capabilities to four and eight megapixels early next decade.
Delphi and other mega-suppliers such as Continental and ZF are also forging new relationships with outside experts. All three are partnering with or have acquired companies developing LiDAR sensors. Delphi is so keen on the technology that it has invested in two LiDAR companies—Silicon Valley-based Quanergy and Israel’s Innoviz Technologies—which the company says have complementary solid-state systems. Canada’s Magna International also is working with Innoviz, which aims to launch mass-production of its sensors next year.
What’s more, Delphi announced deals with BlackBerry QNX and Renovo to help develop its autonomous vehicle operating platform. “These companies have skill sets and expertise that we don’t have,” notes Glen De Vos, Delphi’s chief technology officer. “The reality is you have to have the right partners, and think through all the pieces.”
ZF formed a nonexclusive partnership with Hella earlier this year to develop sensors and systems for ADAS and autonomous vehicles. This follows an advanced engineering alliance with French interiors giant Faurecia to develop a cockpit of the future to address the various interior configurations and occupant positions that could occur within autonomous vehicles.
These are in addition to several recent acquisitions, including 2015’s $13.5-billion blockbuster deal for TRW. “We created a comprehensive roadmap to identify technology gaps, which we’ve been able to close through strategic partnerships and acquisitions,” says Andy Whydell, who heads the company’s product planning operations.
On the OEM side, in September Ford announced plans to team with ride-sharing giant Lyft to develop self-driving cars and put a fleet of them into service as Lyft robotic taxis. The companies intend to identify the best markets for robotic taxis, efficiently dispatch the driverless vehicles on demand and create the necessary infrastructure to service, clean and maintain the fleets. Lyft also has deals with General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Drive.ai, nuTonomy, and Waymo.
In addition to having multiple partnerships, companies also are forming larger groups. Last year BMW launched a partnership with Intel and Mobileye (subsequently acquired by Intel) to develop autonomous vehicle technology. The group—which has since been expanded to include Fiat Chrysler, Continental, Delphi and Magna—was formed to create a flexible and scalable platform to control a range of automated vehicles that can be easily adopted by multiple carmakers. By pooling their resources and integrating their individual strengths, the group expects to reduce development costs and bring technology to market faster.
One of the largest groups, announced this summer, is led by Chinese tech giant Baidu. More than 70 companies are involved in the initiative, including Daimler, Ford and several Chinese automakers, as well as Bosch, Continental, Delphi, Intel, Microsoft, Nvidia, TomTom and ZF, which aims to put a fully autonomous car on the road in China by 2020. Baidu also launched a $1.5 billion investment fund to support its open-source Apollo 1.5 operating platform for autonomous vehicles. The company, which is known as the “Google of China,” is targeting 100 such investments by 2020.
Baidu’s Apollo program is aptly named, considering many people have described self-driving cars as the auto industry’s moon launch—requiring exacting engineering knowhow, technical breakthroughs, management leadership and dedicated teamwork. “It will take many partnerships and consortiums,” declares Renovo CEO Chris Heiser, who founded the Silicon Valley-based middleware specialist. “NASA did not take us to the moon, it was NASA and about 100 other companies.”