What do you get when you cross Google’s software with Ford’s assembly-line expertise? If the companies’ plans pan out, the answer will be a self-driving car that’s ready to hit public roads within a few years.
Google and Ford are creating a new joint program to manufacture a self-driving car at scale, according to reports by Automotive News and Yahoo Autos.
The deal, which is expected to be announced at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, essentially means that Ford will be building Google’s self-driving car. Google has been experimenting with autonomous software for years, and has a fleet of cars that have collectively logged nearly two million miles driven under their own direction on roads in California and Texas.
Google’s software is mature enough that its cars can handle themselves on surface streets as well as highways, sensing and avoiding other vehicles, navigating intersections, and keeping tabs on nearby pedestrians and cyclists.
But Google doesn’t have experience with automotive manufacturing, and building a small fleet of self-driving cars is a far cry from assembling hundreds or thousands of vehicles per year to meet customer demand. By partnering with Ford, Google is saving the billions of dollars and years of effort that would be needed to become an automaker in its own right. And Ford gets a huge leap forward in software: the company has its own self-driving systems, but they’re not nearly as close as Google’s to being ready for prime time. Ford only weeks ago announced plans to begin testing its cars on California roads, something Google has been doing since 2009.
Both companies have argued that self-driving technology will eventually make roads much safer than they are today. Self-driving cars don’t get tired or distracted, and their sensors allow them to see through some obstacles that humans can’t, so they can know to avoid a bicycle that’s coming around a corner or a car that’s approaching with its headlights off. The US Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that human error is responsible for 94 percent of crashes; car fatalities have dropped 36 percent in the past decade, thanks at least in part to semi-autonomous features that let cars stay in their lane automatically and brake when they sense an obstacle.
That’s not to say that self-driving cars have a perfect driving record. Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in 14 accidents over six years of testing, although the engineering team says other drivers have been to blame in every case. “Our self-driving cars are being hit surprisingly often by other drivers who are distracted and not paying attention to the road,” Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving car division, wrote in a blog post in July.