Howes: Google’s Waymo makes bid for self-driving lead

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

Without a sound, Google Inc. fired the next shot Sunday in the battle for the future of the global auto industry.

John Krafcik, head of Google’s self-driving car project, known as Waymo, delivers a keynote speech at the AutoMobili-D Atrium Stage at Cobo Center in Detroit on Sunday.

“What we’re bringing to market is a self-driving technology platform,” John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s new Waymo autonomy unit, said at the opening press day of the Detroit auto show. “Some of this we may do on our own, some of this we may do with partners. Our goal is not to build a better car. It’s to build a better driver.”

Who says there’s not a fight brewing between Detroit and Silicon Valley, between a global auto industry vying for a big chunk of an estimated $10 trillion transportation services business and the high-tech players developing solutions to make it possible?

There is, and only the most willfully deluded refuse to see it. With another year of record sales in the books and 2017 shaping up to be another robust year for the business, the North American International Auto Show is opening on a decidedly contradictory note.

As Sunday’s official agenda showcased all things mobility as part of the first-ever AutoMobili-D expo, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said it would invest $1 billion in plants in Michigan and Ohio to produce two all-new Jeep SUVs, creating 2,000 new jobs.

SUVs big and small are the industry’s hottest metal, despite the mobility craze, a bias toward electrification and steadily higher fuel-economy rules issuing from Washington bureaucrats. General Motors Co. is unveiling two new SUVs.

German automakers are doubling down, too. Ford Motor Co. showed a refreshed F-150 pickup, punctuating the trend moving the Dearborn automaker to transfer production of its compact cars to Mexico to make room for more SUV production at an assembly plant in suburban Detroit.

And yet the energy animating this year’s show feels like it is coming from all things mobility. That’s partly because it promises big money and a future in which Detroit and its automakers are likely to become legitimate players instead of second-tier bystanders it was long assumed they would be.

The contrast underscores the tension pulling the industry in seemingly opposite directions: Comparatively low gas prices, an aging vehicle fleet and upbeat consumer sentiment are driving demand for profit-rich pickups and SUVs even as tough federal fuel economy rules, investor pressure and the arc of technology are pushing automakers to place big bets in the self-driving space.

Those with the financial and technical resources don’t have much choice. The result is an auto industry moving steadily along two tracks: a gasoline-powered present increasingly weighted toward the vehicles that generate the most profit and, second, an electrified future that envisions vehicles operating without a steering wheel, a brake pedal, or a driver.

This year’s show is an unambiguous reminder that the industry will pursue both tracks for some time to come, mostly because it has to. Not necessarily because American consumers and federal regulators demand it, but because such foreign market heavyweights as China and western Europe are setting tough standards that do demand it.

Waymo’s new self-driving system should not be underestimated. By partnering with FCA and Honda Motor Co. — makers of the industry’s class-leading minivans — the tech giant is positioning itself to be a cornerstone provider of the technology that could revolutionize transportation as it’s been understood for the past century.

That’s a challenge to industry leaders in the self-driving space, starting with Detroit’s Ford and General Motors and continuing with Toyota Motor Corp., Renault-Nissan and Germany’s Big Three. All have signaled their intention to essentially go-it-alone in developing self-driving capability because they consider it deeply proprietary and game-changing.

Waymo is a contender with technical cred. It’s a software company that pledges to build its own autonomous hardware, to be the first to field a fully autonomous car in real-world conditions, to be closing in on 3 million miles of testing, as well a 1 billion miles of virtual miles in simulators.

“This is a big wave,” said Chris Theodore, a retired Ford executive who works as an industry consultant. “This is such a brave new world that we’re looking at.”

Yes, it is, as Detroit’s biggest non-automotive mogul — Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert, downtown’s unparalleled property owner — made clear in a first-ever appearance at his hometown auto show.

“Detroit’s where muscle meets brains,” he said. “Now we’re starting to see that whole wave come here. We’ve got a lot to do.”

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Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.