Among the drones, wearables, virtual reality gadgets, and an odor-emitting alarm clock on parade at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, the automobile is garnering its fair share of the limelight. Carmakers, suppliers, and tech companies are doubling down on their bets that the future of the automotive industry lies in the autonomous car.
Industry watchers had expected a high-profile announcement from Ford and Google confirming speculation that the two are pairing up for autonomous-vehicle development. But when Ford CEO Mark Fields hit the stage in Vegas, mention of the deal was conspicuously absent. Sources suggest Ford pairing with Google would help Ford fast-track its autonomous driving program, which faces intense competition from GM, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, BMW, and Tesla. Such a deal would also save Google billions in development as it could take advantage of Ford’s experience in design, build, test, and safety and emissions certifications.
Just ahead of the show, and signaling the industry’s transition from selling vehicles to providing mobility services, GM announced a $500 million investment in Lyft. The two companies presented plans for a network of car rental hubs that would allow Lyft drivers to rent vehicles. Further down the road, GM and Lyft plan to develop an on-demand network of autonomous cars. The move could give Lyft a competitive advantage over Uber in the eventual autonomous on-demand mobility space, as the latter company doesn’t have a major automotive OEM partner for its driverless car strategy.
The mash-ups between the automotive and technology industries suggest a sort of uneasy codependence. The car companies want to maintain control of their vehicles’ connectivity and transform an industry disruption into an opportunity to evolve a more profitable business model. Tech companies have been thought leaders in imagining driverless mobility services, but probably don’t want to fuss with building car factories.
While the prevailing assumption is that Silicon Valley is ahead of the curve on driverless technology, a study by the Intellectual Property and Science division of Thomson Reuters suggests car companies may be in the pole position. The study looked at the numbers of autonomous vehicle-related patents filed by carmakers and tech firms and found that Toyota Motor leads by a wide margin.
At more than 1,400, Toyota has more than twice the number of driverless car patents than any other company. It’s followed by Robert Bosch, Denso, Hyundai, and GM. Google comes in at number 26. However, Reuters notes that the quantity of patents is not indicative of a clear leader, as the quality of the patents matters as well.
Reuters’ examination of the patents related to driverless car technology confirmed what industry experts have suspected for some time — the industry is decidedly headed toward a future where Web-connected electric self-driving cars provide on-demand mobility services.
James Bryant is an industry editor for Dun & Bradstreet. Based in Austin, Texas, he writes about issues affecting the global manufacturing sector. He’s been the company’s specialist on the auto industry for 15 years.
Photo courtesy of Ford.