Can Ford beat Google in the driverless car race?

Step aside Tesla, Google and Uber: white van man's taking the wheel.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Aug 2016

It really shouldn’t be surprising to find that Ford is planning to have a fully driverless car in commercial operation by 2021. The firm does know a thing or two about automotive technology, after all. Certainly its $6.7bn R&D budget won’t hurt.

Yet its ambition to pioneer driverless technology, which CEO Mark Fields said would define the next decade in the industry, somehow fails to elicit the same excitement or expectation as when Tesla or Apple or Alphabet say it.

The reason is that it doesn’t fit the disruptor narrative that Silicon Valley has so skilfully sold us. ‘Legacy’ firms like Ford (or indeed Panasonic...), so the story goes, simply cannot compete with their infinitely more original, dynamic, upstart rivals.

Indeed, their attempts to do so seem about as ludicrous as an early 20th century cart manufacturer saying it would ‘disrupt itself’ and become a leader in this new-fangled horseless carriage technology.

The danger with this narrative is that it assumes Silicon Valley-style companies are simply better at technology than everyone else, regardless of sector, and more importantly that they could therefore conquer any industry if they so pleased.

However, the immense automotive market may prove a harder nut to crack than, say, phones. As Elon Musk said about Apple’s ambitions in the sector, cars are incredibly complex pieces of engineering – ‘you can’t just go to a supplier like Foxconn and say: build me a car.’

This gives companies like Ford a substantial head start over the upstart tech giants, which is why they’re all clamouring to get ahead in driverless technology, before it's too late. Ford is right to identify this (and electric cars) as the next big thing, even if the timescale of the next ten years might be a touch optimistic, and it doesn’t want to be left behind.

But can it actually do it?

If all that’s required is to develop and roll out driverless technology faster than the tech giants can on the own, the answer is probably yes.

Firms like Ford, Toyota and VW may not be equal to Google on the technological side, but they can buy expertise there – indeed, Ford recently invested in or bought four companies in areas such as machine learning, as part of its ‘Smart Mobility’ strategy.

On the roll out side, they have a huge advantage because they can introduce the new technology into their existing fleets incrementally with relative ease. The tech firms would either have to build a car company from scratch a la Tesla – despite Elon Musk’s hype, remember that after 13 years his firm is still a (loss-making) drop in the ocean in volume terms – or effectively become a supplier to an existing car company, which is hardly that disruptive.

The curse of White Van Man

No, Ford’s driverless car problem is to do with its brand. The consumers who want automation in their cars are tech-heads and early adopters. They want 21st century technology, but Ford has a 20th century brand.

No matter how hard Ford tries to make us ‘unlearn’ it, they are the archetypal heavy industrial manufacturer, something that’s reinforced every time we see white van man (or woman) chugging along the M4.

Ford is smart enough to realise this, which is why it isn’t trying to go directly for the consumer market. Instead, it’s specifically designing the new vehicles for ride-hailing.

Rather than tempting drivers with incremental automation, it’s appealing to the likes of Uber with genuinely driverless vehicles that won’t even have steering wheels or peddles.

If you’re pitching to Uber (or to the people who’ll buy a driverless car for use on Uber’s platform), you don’t need high-tech glamour so much as reliability, fuel economy and a decent list price, where Ford is historically on stronger ground.

Whether it will work – especially when rivals like Toyota, GM and VW have actually invested in the ride hailing apps themselves –remains to be seen. But it would certainly be foolish to discount Ford and the others as possible leaders in the driverless car revolution just because they’re not ‘tech’ firms. Detroit may not be Silicon Valley, but these firms still know their business. 

Image credit: Sven Storbeck/Wikipedia


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