But without clear terms from the outset, these collaborations may create tricky legal issues, according to corporate liability and intellectual property experts.
"Everybody is in a race for talent in every corner of the globe in automotive. To successfully come together in a venture and leverage that technology is a faster way to get there," said Steven Hilfinger, a partner at Detroit law firm Foley & Lardner, which specializes in corporate and securities law. "You want to know going in what access you may have and what the expectations are. IP ownership is critical."
Experts say the rush to striking partnerships could lead to tech companies controlling critical aspects of intellectual property, ultimately earning more off the technology than the automakers or auto suppliers.
BMW's project is one example of collaborative r&d in the self-driving car space. In addition to Magna, participants include Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Aptiv — the technology-focused supplier spun out from Delphi — Continental, Intel and Mobileye. The partners intend to deploy 40 self-driving test vehicles by the end of this year and have a nonexclusive autonomous platform on the market in 2021. Carmakers and suppliers have jointly developed things such as powertrains for decades, with the goal of spreading costs for capital-intensive projects.
But while past ventures usually operated under discreet, project-oriented deals or complex joint venture agreements, the pace, complexity and scope of self-driving car development has pushed industry stalwarts into open-ended and less-defined arrangements that bypass lengthy negotiations.
"The complexity is so high," said Stefan Sommer, CEO of supplier ZF Friedrichshafen AG, after announcing a partnership with Hella, a radar and camera supplier, this year. "The expectations of our customers are so high, the time is so tight, and the schedules are so fast."