Big 3 increase tie-ups in race to self-driving cars

Michael Wayland, Michael Martinez, and Melissa Burden

Detroit automakers are accelerating development of autonomous vehicles by increasingly partnering with the very Silicon Valley tech companies that are disrupting their industry.

Lyft Inc. and General Motors Co. are developing self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs that could pick up passengers for testing in California within a couple of years, The Detroit News confirmed Thursday. Ford Motor Co. earlier in the day announced a major investment in Palo Alto-based software company Pivotal to develop cloud-based software for alternative mobility services. And Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Google on Tuesday said they’re developing autonomous minivans and will begin testing this year.

The unprecedented pace of change is pushing technology companies and automakers to aggressively partner, invest in and develop next-generation technologies in an effort to stake out positions in a driverless future. The partnerships are needed for both the auto and tech industries to push beyond horsepower and torque to infotainment and autonomy. Silicon Valley has speed and credibility with technology, while the Motor City has brick-and-mortar factories and experience mass-producing vehicles.

“Without some partner, we really wouldn’t be focusing on this right now,” Taggart Matthiesen, Lyft’s director of product, told The News on Thursday. “I really like the GM partnership because what they focus on and what we focus on are completely two different aspects of yet two pieces of the much larger problem.”

Matthiesen said the first phase of street testing would likely involve a handful of cars with “safety drivers” behind the wheel in case something unexpected occurs.

“We’re still working on the technology, but I think we’re in a position where we basically have a plan as to how we want to roll this out,” he said Thursday, ahead of an appearance at Techweek Detroit. “We’re trying to measure this in months, not years.”

The Bolt EVs are expected to be tested in California within the next couple of years, according to a source familiar with the plans. Plans for the autonomous Bolt fleet were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

GM, through its pending acquisition of Cruise Automation, will inherit the software company’s license to test autonomous vehicles in the Golden State.

Matthiesen declined to offer a time frame for when the companies want to deploy the vehicles on U.S. roadways, saying city policies and legislation must be in line.

GM’s Mike Ableson, vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, told Congress in March that the automaker sees the “next logical step toward public availability of autonomous vehicles will be controlled ride-sharing projects, such as what we are planning with Lyft.” He also said the company planned to introduce autonomous technology with Lyft drivers within “the next couple of years.”

A prototype version of the app using an autonomous Bolt would allow Lyft users to opt in or out of the self-driving testing program when hailing a ride. Matthiesen said the company is working on how the car will communicate with occupants to ensure everyone is in the vehicle, that it’s the right vehicle and that the destination is correct.

“These are things that we’re going to have to think about in terms of solving that aren’t going to be solved by just an app,” he said. “And that’s where the partnership with GM, as we go through this, it’s not just about the user experiences on the app, but in the car as well.”

GM spokesman Kevin Kelly on Thursday declined to comment on specifics of its Lyft partnership: “GM continues to make progress on our previously announced plans related to an integrated on-demand autonomous network with Lyft,” he said in an emailed statement. “Similarly, we have said the Chevrolet Bolt EV is the ideal platform for ride-sharing solutions. We believe electrification blends perfectly with autonomy when it comes to technology integration.”

Plans for an autonomous fleet were originally announced when GM said it was investing $500 million in Lyft in January, but no timetable was given.

RBC Capital Markets LLC analyst Joe Spak said in a research note Thursday that autonomous pilot testing needs to be successful in interacting with people and other vehicles. “If this occurs, we believe public confidence in autonomous vehicles will advance and further accelerate the push towards autonomy,” he said in the note.

Ford and Fiat Chrysler also are keeping with what they know while bringing in new tricks from technology companies.

Ford on Thursday announced a $182.2 million investment in Pivotal that will lead to quicker updates for cloud-based software like the recently created FordPass customer experience app and its Dearborn campus shuttle service. Ford has worked with Pivotal for years, but Ford President and CEO Mark Fields told The News the new investment is “like going from dating to getting married.”

“It really solidifies our learning, but more importantly our access to a lot of these cutting-edge development methods and tools that Pivotal has at a speed we wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise,” Fields said.

The Dearborn automaker is increasingly experimenting with new technologies and services beyond selling cars. Its own engineers and information technology workers are adept at developing embedded software like the millions of lines of code found in modern cars. But Pivotal is more experienced at cloud-based software.

The partnership will allow Pivotal’s workers to teach Ford how to “build software in the same way the very fastest and best developers in Silicon Valley do,” Pivotal CEO Rob Mee told The News.

As part of the partnership, Ford and Pivotal will open three software labs. The companies offered no details, except to say the labs will be in the U.S. and Europe. As part of the investment, Ford’s Chief Information Officer Marcy Klevorn will join Pivotal’s board of directors.

The Ford investment and Lyft news came two days after Fiat Chrysler and Google’s self-driving car division announced a partnership to build 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans equipped with the tech giant’s self-driving technology.

The non-exclusive partnership marks the first time Google has worked directly with an automaker to integrate its self-driving system — including its sensors and software — into a passenger vehicle.

The collaboration is expected to give Fiat Chrysler additional credibility in the auto tech sector, a space in which it has been lacking compared to GM, Ford and others.

“We are entering a new frontier and it’s a very different world than what the automakers have been in,” said senior analyst Michelle Krebs. “They do need partners who have expertise that maybe they don’t have.”