After an excitable start, Google and car makers are not getting along

By James Robinson , written on July 1, 2014

From The News Desk

Yesterday, a fascinating piece popped up on Reuters, covering the tension between Google’s self driving car plans and the major Detroit-based car manufacturers it has looked to partner with. The article detailed that while conversations about self-driving cars began promisingly and with enthusiasm in 2012, things quickly grew tense.

Citing insider sources from meetings between the two groups, the story outlines how car manufacturers' caution with this new technology has not meshed well with Google's desire to innovate at all costs.

Car makers favor slowly integrating self-driving features into the car, growing out our appetite for the technology, testing out its capabilities, and exploring just how great the demand is before going all in.

Google -- as the recent fuss over the unveiling of its futuristic, Jetsons-esque, steering-wheel free driving pods showed us -- wants to eventually push out a fully realized, perfected product to market, whenever that will be. But there’s a hubris in this that doesn’t seem to be going over well.

“There was a certain amount of arrogance on the Google side, in the sense of ‘We know what we’re doing, you just help us,’” an unnamed car manufacturer told Reuters.

There seems to be a feeling, if reports are to be believed, that Google wants to put out its vision and then have car manufacturers simply take over the heavy lifting with manufacturing -- a much larger scale version of its partnership with Ray Ban for Google Glass. But as car manufacturers contend, if Google puts out a dud car it is still a sideline for them and it can go back to its core business. In comparison, Volvo putting its name to a self-driving car that puts people in danger would be catastrophic to its core reputation for years.

In the eyes of the car makers, this has led to a certain naivety from Google. One source involved in discussions said that Google had offered to take responsibility for all accidents that were caused by the technology.

“I just couldn’t believe my ears and was like ‘Wow you live in a bubble. Car makers never get to decide who is at fault. It’s the lawyers, the judge and the jury,” they said.

The impasse puts both parties in a peculiar position. For Google, even as it starts to manufacturer small runs of self-driving car prototypes, it is highly unlikely that it wants to be a car manufacturer in the long term. Reuters hypothesizes that launching its own car would run it north of $1.5 billion. As I’ve written in the past, Google seems to view making its own hardware as a platform play. It gets it to market, gets its software on there and then stays out of the way.

Glass is one of Google’s more audacious hardware displays to date, and look how that is going. It seems to be held as given that all it will take for Google to disrupt the car market is for it to make a car. One of the more intriguing, and kind of bonkers, parts of Reuters’ story is the 2013 KPMG study it references where respondents to a survey expressed more trust in a self-driving vehicle made by a tech company than any car manufacturer. But a company like Google has never had to do the dirty work of handling a recall. No one has had the displeasure yet of being mucked about by a Google brand mechanic.

Yes, Google has the resources to go it alone, but it is unclear whether it has the will to match that.

But for car manufacturers, turning your back on Google and staying on the current course is a bet for small, incremental wins. All the while, they're left wondering just exactly when (2020? 2035?) Google will drop the nuclear option into the market.

Of course there’s the third option, that once the business case and the technology are really all there, this squabbling over timelines and liabilities and who owns map data will all clear up quickly.

For now, Google has a mountain to climb with self-driving cars. Its success isn’t inevitable. But for car manufacturers it is a terrifying company to bet against.

[Image courtesy: Wikimedia]