In the mad rush to autonomous vehicles, Ford could leapfrog the competition by doing a deal with Google to build a fleet of self-driving cars to the tech giant's specifications.
The big benefit? Instead of adding Google's electronics to an existing car, Ford engineers likely would create a purpose-built vehicle -- and learn much in the process.
The car would be developed from the wheels up to seamlessly package the complex electronics, lidar, radar and camera sensing and computer systems needed to guide a vehicle safely down the road. In other words, it would look like a normal car, not like Google's experimental "bubble cars."
Sources say the Ford-Google talks are ongoing and, if finalized over the holiday break, could be announced as early as the week of Jan. 4 during the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Neither company would confirm the deal.
Ford also is expected to make mobility a major theme of its presentation at the Detroit auto show the following week and could announce a deal there.
Ford could base Google's vehicle on one of the automaker's current platforms, such as the Ford Fusion. But it is more likely the vehicle would be engineered from a clean sheet. And even with that, it could still be produced far faster than if Google tried to build the vehicle itself, said AutoPacific analyst Dave Sullivan.
"The vehicle will be built to Google's specifications, but contain Ford's FMVSS [Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards] know-how," he said.
Citing electronic items Google sells -- phones, speakers, computing devices -- Sullivan said the template exists for how Google would work with Ford. All those devices are made to Google's specifications, he said.
Ford may have felt pressure to partner with Google to bolster its automated-driving efforts as the competition heats up. Tesla's Autopilot technology is on the road in the Model S, and Cadillac is about a year away from launching Super Cruise on its flagship CT6 sedan.
Japanese carmakers promise self-driving technology by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Lexus and BMW are rushing to incorporate self-driving features. Thus, the technology is a must-have item for Ford's struggling Lincoln luxury brand.
A Ford-Google deal could deliver big benefits for both companies.
By using Ford-built vehicles, Google would save billions in development costs. It would not have to design, build, test, manufacture and validate cars for safety and emissions. A deal would free the tech giant to focus on developing the automated driving software in use in a fleet of 53 self-driving bubble cars on the road in California and Texas. Those 53 cars, by the way, were assembled in Detroit by Roush Enterprises, a supplier closely aligned with Ford.
"If Google plans to market its own vehicle, contract manufacturing would make sense as the company would not have to invest billions of dollars in manufacturing capacity," said David Lim, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities.
Access to technology
In turn, Ford, which has been tinkering with autonomous vehicles and software for years, could gain access to Google's self-driving technology. Ford executives have been dropping hints all year that the automaker 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," Ford Motor Co. CEO Mark 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."
During a visit this month to Ford's year-old Silicon Valley research center in Palo Alto, Calif., an audience member asked Fields why Ford is developing software for self-driving cars. Why not simply strike 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 collaborate on projects and compete against one another simultaneously.
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."
Gabe Nelson and Nick Bunkley contributed to this report.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.