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Opposite strategies fuel driverless car development

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Automakers are on two separate paths to creating self-driving cars.

Some, like General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co., have enough cash reserves that they are developing their own proprietary autonomous systems in close partnership with technology companies. Others are waiting to buy off-the-shelf systems like the fully autonomous one announced by Delphi Automotive PLC and Mobileye NV, which they said Tuesday will be ready for any automaker to purchase by 2019.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages: Automakers who create their own systems can potentially be first to market and have the authority to adapt and change the technology to suit their specific needs. Automakers who wait for a turnkey approach, however, avoid some of the risk of failure and potentially save hundreds of millions in research and development.

“There’s no right path,” said Jeremy Carlson, senior analyst of automotive technology at forecasting firm IHS Markit. “The decision needs to be made for each individual company for what they need to do. It comes down to what you’re able to do with the resources you have.”

A number of automakers have spent the past year acquiring resources for their own systems.

Ford last week vowed it would put a fully autonomous car on the road in 2021. It is working with Velodyne, Pivotal, Civil Maps and other companies to make it a reality.

GM earlier this year invested $500 million in ride-hailing service Lyft, and the two companies are working to deploy autonomous Chevrolet Bolts being tested in California and Arizona. GM purchased Cruise Automation to help it develop autonomous software.

Other automakers have announced similar proprietary plans. Kia has promised driverless cars by 2030 and Toyota invested $1 billion in a research institute to study autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence.

Analysts say there’s a natural desire to develop autonomous cars in-house, in part for the bragging rights of possibly being the first automaker to do it, and also for the ability to update and evolve quicker than with a generic one-size-fits-all supplier system.

“If we head down the fully autonomous road, the autonomous aspect is going to be the core aspect of the car,” said Akshay Anand, senior analyst with auto research firm Kelley Blue Book. “There’s probably a school of thought you don’t want to be beholden to anyone but yourself in that regard. At the same time, if you are a smaller OEM without the resources ... you need to remain relevant.”

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles could fit that description. The Auburn Hills automaker in May said it would provide 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Google Inc. for autonomous car development, but has largely remained behind its Detroit rivals in terms of driverless technology announcements.

CEO Sergio Marchionne hinted in January that he’d be open to waiting on a supplier’s system – like the one being developed by Delphi and Mobileye.

“Ultimately we will all end up there because the supplier base is incredibly prolific, it’s proficient, it’s efficient. It will provide solutions,” Marchionne said then. “It will provide solutions that bridge the gap between people that have and don’t have that solution. But we’ll all end up in the same place.”

Among other suppliers, Continental AG has tested autonomous technology and plans to deploy a fully driverless car by 2025. Robert Bosch LLC recently showcased a number of self-driving technologies, including an autonomous parking feature that will go into production by the end of the decade.

Delphi and Mobileye executives on Tuesday argued that their system would give car companies a step up on the competition because of its cost-effectiveness. Wall Street analysts like Citi Investment analyst Itay Michaeli agreed.

Delphi CEO Kevin Clark said the two suppliers are combining to pour “hundreds of millions” of dollars into the project.

The proposed system would include a steering wheel and pedals, allowing for the possibility of a driver taking over in an emergency. New mapping software and hardware from Mobileye would work with a Delphi control module that uses data from its cameras, LiDAR (light-detection and ranging system) and radar to make driving decisions.

The two companies will showcase the fully autonomous vehicle system at the upcoming CES technology trade show in Las Vegas in January, and will begin fleet testing in Singapore and a number of other regions shortly thereafter.

Delphi has been testing self-driving technology for years, and Mobileye recently worked on Tesla’s Autopilot system before ending their partnership after a fatality involving the technology.

Mobileye illustrates the break-neck speed at which autonomous car partnerships have been developing.

Less than two months before Tuesday’s announcement with Delphi, Mobileye said it would partner with BMW and Intel Corp. to develop self-driving cars by 2021. While there appears to be a conflict between the two tie-ups, Shashua said Tuesday the new deal will be “complementary” to any other partnership it makes with carmakers.

“There is a race to autonomy,” Kelley Blue Book’s Anand said. “I think the race is just going to become faster and faster and more furious.”

mmartinez@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2401

Twitter.com/MikeMartinez_DN