A Ford deal with Google would fit within the strategy laid out by Fields, who last January launched a plan called “Ford Smart Mobility” to bolster the company’s expertise in car sharing and other new business models for transportation.
Ford executives have been dropping hints all year that it could work with Google, Apple or another tech giant to accelerate its quest to bring self-driving cars to market.
“It’s not only about what are the things that are going to be core to us but who are we going to partner with, in some cases,” Fields said in a Dec. 11 interview. “Because I don’t think we can just be so arrogant to think that we’re going to do everything on our own and we’re going to do something better than maybe a company that does that 24/7. For us, partnerships are really important.”
At the same time, automakers have been wary of working too closely with Silicon Valley technology companies, particularly Google, whose innovations and ability to harvest data might reduce consumers’ desire to own a vehicle in the future.
During a visit last week to Ford’s year-old Silicon Valley research facility in Palo Alto, Calif., Fields signaled that Ford sees new mobility models as a way to grow its business.
Ford generates roughly 6 percent of the revenue in today’s global auto industry, but rival transportation options such as planes and trains add up to another multitrillion-dollar market, Fields said, and of that, “we get zero.”
During the Palo Alto event, an audience member asked Fields why Ford is developing its own software for self-driving cars, rather than simply striking a deal to use best-in-class software from an outside vendor.
Fields joked that Silicon Valley practically invented the concept of “frenemies,” which, in a corporate context, means that companies are willing to simultaneously collaborate on projects and compete against one another.
Ford’s r&d center is working on self-driving software, Fields said, “but that doesn’t mean we won’t work with others. I think that’s part of the beauty of being here.”
Such a partnership would mark another step toward the marketplace for Google. Bloomberg reported last week that Google, which is thinking of putting its technology into automated taxis as a rival for Uber and Lyft, may spin off the unit into a standalone business within its new Alphabet Inc. corporate structure in 2016.
What kind of car?
It isn’t clear whether Ford would design a purpose-built vehicle for Google or supply a standard production car fitted with the sensors and computers that the car needs to guide itself down the road. Ford announced this week that it plans to start testing autonomous Fusion Hybrids on California roads next year.
Ford’s Washington said recently that he expects fully autonomous vehicles to be ready within four years.
Having Ford build Google’s test fleet would save the Silicon Valley tech giant years and billions in development costs. The Ford-built vehicles would use the automaker’s production-ready powertrain as well as safety and emissions components.
There are already ties between Ford and Google. Google’s first generation of 100 self-driving vehicles were assembled in Detroit by Roush Industries, a company closely aligned with Ford. The bubble-shaped cars, as Crain’s Detroit Business first reported in 2014, used components from local Detroit area suppliers.
Thilo Koslowski, lead automotive analyst at Gartner Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif., said it makes sense automakers would want to work with Google, which could help them catch up to rivals that are pursuing automated driving to differentiate their products.
And at Google, “the focus has shifted to looking for OEM partners to deploy the technology, rather than considering building their own vehicles,” Koslowski said. “That makes sense. If Google is interested in bringing the benefit of the technology to consumers, then they need as many partners as possible.”
Ford and Google are said to have been in talks since at least 2012 on autonomous cars. The two companies also teamed up in 2011 on technology that would help vehicles learn customers’ driving habits and get them to destinations more efficiently.
Ford announced on Dec. 15 that it had secured permission from California to test its own autonomous cars in California. Ford will use hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion in those tests.
Nick Bunkley of Automotive News and Dustin Walsh of Crain’s Detroit Business contributed to this story.