Driverless car battle lines get blurry

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

San Jose — In the earliest years of the push to bring driverless and electric cars to the American masses, the narrative came easily: It was Silicon Valley and its high-tech wizardry squaring off against the old-school manufacturing power of Detroit.

The question of who will lead the development and manufacturing of autonomous and electric cars remains, carrying the weight of who will benefit from the jobs and revenues they create. An April 3 posting on Wired told readers “Detroit is Stomping Silicon Valley.” Two days later, Robotics Trends declared “No, Detroit Isn’t Beating Silicon Valley.”

Since 2015, Ford has had a small presence in Palo Alto on the Stanford University campus.

The answer may lie somewhere in between. Investments by General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. in Silicon Valley operations — and partnerships between Detroit automakers and California artificial intelligence and technology companies — have blurred the lines.

Interviews with players in Silicon Valley show shifting attitudes toward the Motor City.

Christopher Heiser’s company, Renovo Auto, gained notoriety two years ago for helping to create an autonomous DeLorean capable of doing donuts in a parking lot. Now the company is a leader in developing operating systems for driverless cars. It recently drew investment from heavy-hitter Verizon Wireless.

Count Heiser among those who doesn’t buy the idea that one area must dominate the future automotive arena.

“The Detroit versus Silicon Valley narrative has never held water,” Heiser said in an email to The Detroit News. “This isn’t an either-or proposition. The only way automated vehicles make it to scale is for automotive companies to work with technology partners they trust. The tech companies that get it — The complexity, the safety-critical nature of cars — those are the ones helping to make driving safer and more efficient. Bringing all the pieces together is the challenge, and collaboration is the solution.”

While Fiat Chrysler Automobiles lacks a physical presence in Silicon Valley, it has teamed with Waymo for research.

Since 2015, Ford has had a small presence in Palo Alto on the Stanford University campus. By the end of this year, the company plans to open a massive new facility for its work on autonomous issues. That will eventually lead to a doubling of Ford’s 150-employee workforce. The expansion comes on the heels of Ford’s February announcement that it was investing $1 billion in artificial-intelligence company Argo AI.

A year ago, GM acquired San Francisco-based software startup Cruise Automation to serve as the centerpiece of its own driverless car research. An infusion of $14 million will be used to create a new development facility for the company in the same area and create 1,100 new jobs in the area.

While Fiat Chrysler Automobiles lacks a physical presence in Silicon Valley, it has expanded its partnership with Google offshoot Waymo by providing an additional 500 Chrysler Pacifica minivans for research.

‘Old Detroit ... evolving’

It’s a trend that has not been lost on industry leaders in California.

“I think it shows that Old Detroit is really evolving to start ... I would say lead innovation,” said Nakul Duggal, vice president of product management for chipmaker Qualcomm. The traditional auto companies, he added, are making the moves toward becoming service providers that can use technology to adapt their existing products to autonomous uses.

“I think all of these moves are what you might expect for technology leaders and market leaders to be able be prepared for what’s coming in the future,” Duggal said.

Physical presence in California aside, the strategic partnerships forged by automakers have been just as eye-catching.

Driverless work in places like Detroit and San Jose, above, is drawing competition from Phoenix to Pittsburgh.

“Ford is investing in Argo, GM has Cruise,” said Sean Wix, a member of the technical marketing team for Nvidia, whose processors take data from vehicle sensors and identify what the car is “seeing.” “Everyone is buying into this whole (artificial intelligence) thing and is spending a lot of money on it.”

J. Christian Gerdes, director of Stanford’s Dynamic Design Lab in Palo Alto, works with several automakers on driverless technologies. He has gained an appreciation for what Detroit does well, and what it does not.

“It is still, in my mind, almost like magic what the auto industry can produce and sell for something in the $15,000 to $20,000 range,” he said. “It blows my mind that that’s possible. ... There is a lot of expertise in the auto industry around volume manufacturing, around safety-critical systems, around a lot of these design aspects that are, honestly, hard to duplicate.

“But it’s also hard, in a company that is set up and organized around pricing that magic, to also necessarily stay on top of all the new possibilities and all of the new technologies,” he continued. And, he said, that gives smaller companies the opportunity to be innovative and really push the boundaries.”

New players in new places

Developments in recent years seemingly support the notion that the future of driverless and electric vehicles may not be centered in any one region. One example is Lucid Motors, the Menlo Park, California-based maker of the luxury electric car Lucid Air, which debuted at the New York Auto Show in April. After looking at 60 locations across 13 different states, the company settled on the community of Casa Grande, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, to be the home of its new manufacturing plant.

“The site itself was basically ready with everything we needed — good access to railways and good access to highways,” said David Salguero, Lucid’s marketing manager. He declined to discuss what other states had been under consideration.

Phoenix has also attracted attention as a robotic-car testing ground for GM, Ford, Intel Corp., Uber Technologies and Waymo. Pittsburgh has been a focal point for Uber’s testing in recent years.

And new players continue to pop up in new places. This week, Blacksburg, Virginia-based Torc Robotics announced its own self-driving car project.

Back in Silicon Valley, not everyone is as attentive to what is happening with electric and autonomous vehicles — even those with links to the automotive industry. Many feel no real sense of competition over the production of tomorrow’s cars.

In San Jose, Dave Hennon has worked as a mechanic for decades in this region, yet the high-tech nature of what’s on the horizon, as well as the battle over it, seems remote to him.

“I’m not going to be too involved in it at my age,” he joked. “I’m going to be 60 later this year.”

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