Ford, Google form 'strategic partnership' on cloud services, Android operating system

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. and Google on Monday said they have formed a six-year "strategic partnership" under which the automaker will introduce the Android operating system into millions of vehicles and use Google technology for everything from in-vehicle connected services to manufacturing processes.

Ford Motor Company Henry Ford II World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan on September 2, 2020.

Ford will designate Google as its preferred cloud provider, allowing the Blue Oval "to leverage Google's world-class expertise in data, artificial intelligence and machine learning," the automaker said in a news release. 

"As Ford continues the most profound transformation in our history with electrification, connectivity and self-driving, Google and Ford coming together establishes an innovation powerhouse truly able to deliver a superior experience for our customers and modernize our business," Ford CEO Jim Farley said in a statement.

Ford sees Google's cloud services as a way to both improve the digitally-connected technologies that are becoming the norm in new vehicles, as well as modernize its own business, the automaker said. 

The cloud services component of the partnership has implications for everything from the automaker's manufacturing processes, to the services and products customers will see, to underlying vehicle technologies. Ford (which will continue to work with other cloud providers) said it plans to use Google Cloud to improve customer experiences, speed up the modernization of product development and manufacturing and supply-chain management, and "fast track the implementation of data-driven business models."

"With Google Cloud, Ford will digitally transform, from the front office to the car to the manufacturing plant floor," said Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, during a news conference Monday. "There are a number of different applications, including modernizing product development, improving manufacturing and supply-chain management, using computer vision AI for employee training, inspection of equipment on the assembly line, and other applications."

Additionally, the two companies will work together on new data-driven services that, for example, would allow customers to get real-time notifications of maintenance requests.

In terms of retail shopping, executives said they see the collaboration as a way to use data to personalize the experience and hone in on the needs and wants of individual customers.

Executives for the two companies declined to discuss the terms or structure of the deal. David McClelland, Ford's vice president of strategy and partnerships, described it as "a broad relationship between Ford and Google, not a financial investment." Farley told CNBC the deal was worth "hundreds of millions" of dollars, though he declined to provide a specific number.

"It's not a big surprise to see Ford start a preferred partnership for cloud services," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Guidehouse Insights. "This is the direction most big companies are going. Everyone is increasingly reliant on cloud services to power a lot of the things they're doing."

Just last month, General Motors Co. announced it and its autonomous-vehicle partner, Cruise LLC, had entered into a long-term strategic relationship with Microsoft Corp., with plans to use Azure, Microsoft’s cloud and edge computing platform, to commercialize Cruise's AVs at scale.

A driving factor behind automakers' development of digitally-connected vehicles, Abuelsamid noted, is that data-driven services open up new revenue streams as manufacturers make the costly transition to electrified vehicles, which require less maintenance.

Under another component of the deal, engineers from each of the companies will form "Team Upshift," a collaboration to develop new tech- and data-driven offerings for customers.

The introduction of the Android operating system — including built-in Google apps and services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and Google Play — into Ford vehicles will begin in 2023, and will span much of Ford's global lineup. 

McClelland said the collaboration would include "millions of vehicles worldwide," excluding vehicles in China, where Google does not operate.

"We have a very detailed plan on which vehicles we will have this solution for Google Automotive Services on, and as those vehicles are launched in the U.S. and in Europe and around the world, it will become available," he said.

In addition to Google apps and apps developed by Team Upshift, customers would also be able to download apps developed by third parties for Android. 

Ford vehicles feature Sync, the automaker's in-vehicle communications system. Sync originally was powered by Microsoft software and now runs on Blackberry's QNX operating system. 

McClelland noted that Sync is included in the automaker's latest vehicles, including the redesigned F-150, the Bronco and Mustang Mach-E.

"We won't discuss future strategy around branding of Sync, but our customers will continue to use it until transition to the Google Automotive Services solution in calendar year 2023," he said.  

Though McClelland declined to comment on it, Ford could continue to use the Sync branding with Android as the underlying operating system.

As Ford aims to speed up its development of technologically-advanced vehicles in which it sees lucrative opportunities for data-driven services, executives say that the partnership could bring quicker over-the-air software updates and the capability for the Android system to pull data from vehicles and feed it into an analytics system in Google Cloud.

Asked whether users' data would be shared with third parties, Kurian said no. Google also will not have access to Ford customer data in the cloud, he said.

And while Ford is making the switch to Android, McClelland said customers still will have the option to pair with a non-Android device. Customers will continue to have access to Apple CarPlay and Amazon's Alexa voice assistant: "We want customers to have the choice of the embedded in-vehicle solution with Google, which will be world-class, and also the opportunity to bring in their own device as well."

Ford's stock rose on news of the new tie-up. Shares were up about 6.5%, to $11.35, shortly after the announcement. At the market close, shares in the Blue Oval were up 2.85% to $10.83.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski