Editor’s note: Friday is Gabe Nelson’s last day at Automotive News, where he has covered Silicon Valley since 2014.
SAN FRANCISCO -- When I set up shop here for Automotive News, my editors and I wanted to answer a big, important question: Who is winning in the battle between Detroit and Silicon Valley?
Two years later, I think I have an answer. It’s the world that’s winning.
We are seeing unprecedented levels of both collaboration and competition between traditional automotive companies and high-tech newcomers such as Google, Uber and Tesla, which increasingly share a conviction that an opportunity has arrived to make transportation safer, cleaner and more accessible through electrification, automation, connectivity and new types of mobility services.
Some companies will inevitably prosper from these changes, while others will suffer. But I’m heartened to see Detroit and Silicon Valley learning that it’s OK to be “frenemies.” Because as long as this situation holds, everyone on Earth will benefit.
Beyond the fact that virtually every major automaker now has a research lab in Silicon Valley, we are seeing an unprecedented level of intermarriage between automotive companies and tech companies. Within the past few months, General Motors inked a deal to buy startup Cruise Automation for $1 billion and invested $500 million in Lyft, emblematic of a widespread recognition that Silicon Valley’s world-class software talent is more easily acquired than replicated.
Meanwhile, Silicon Valley is learning the same lesson about the auto industry’s strength in manufacturing and quality control. Just look at Tesla.
After years of delays, the Model X crossover is suffering from quality problems so severe that CEO Elon Musk, the modern master of the reality-distortion field, has been forced to diagnose the problem as a result of corporate “hubris.”
During an earnings call this month, Musk begged the world’s best manufacturing minds to join Tesla. Despite the company’s prowess with batteries and software and a brand that can do no wrong with technophiles, Tesla seems to have realized that those dweebs in Stuttgart and Toyota City know a little something after all.
General Motors and Tesla aren’t exactly singing “Kumbaya” in a circle, but there’s obviously an increasing respect for what the other culture can do.
It’s a similar story at Google. After building its own prototype, an adorable koala-faced pod, Google announced this month that it had hired Fiat Chrysler to supply 100 custom-built Chrysler Pacifica minivans to its test fleet of self-driving cars.
Google’s custom-designed prototype made a bold statement, but its rough ride would never satisfy people who are used to riding in conventional cars. Suspension tuning, like manufacturing, is a black magic that takes generations to learn. Google clearly understands that hiring a wizard is easier than becoming one.
Google is still blazing a trail with one distinct vision of self-driving cars, while automakers pursue another, but they’re willing to work together where it makes sense.
These episodes show it’s time to retire the tired trope of Detroit vs. Silicon Valley, in which one industry defeats another to control the computerization of the car.
Journalists like me are complicit in spreading that narrative, because our job, to some extent, is to be provocative. Yet the old Detroit vs. Silicon Valley narrative does reflect, to some extent, real thinking within both cultures.
I have met too many people from Silicon Valley who see the auto industry as a stagnant backwater that’s full of knuckle-draggers too foolish to avoid being “disrupted.” I have met far too many Detroiters who openly root for Tesla’s demise, too many people from Munich and Stuttgart who gleefully mock the Google car and its body-panel gaps, like old-money socialites who scorn the poor taste of the nouveau riche.
The growing interconnectedness between Detroit and Silicon Valley is great news because it softens that us-and-them mentality, while still allowing individual companies to compete against one another for supremacy in the marketplace.
Early automobiles were designed as the anchor for a revolutionary transportation system, offering a level of freedom and fun that were previously unimaginable. They became the economic engine of the modern world.
But somewhere along the way, the vision calcified. We stopped dreaming. Like movie studios with an endless parade of sequels, the auto industry made the same cars, just a bit better. The new Civic. The new Beetle. They even called it the New Beetle!
Today’s clash of cultures is returning us to those early days of the automobile. We are no longer merely rethinking how cars are designed, but how they work, how they are owned and how they are used. Neither the software geniuses in San Francisco nor the gearheads in Detroit can design the best solutions alone.
As friends and rivals, sometimes at the same time, they can.
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