Detroit to Silicon Valley: The Driverless Car War Coming To You

When human drivers let intelligent software take the wheel, driverless cars will offer billions of people all over the world a safer, cleaner and more convenient mode of transportation.

In an ideal future, our streets and highways will glisten with schools of tightly packed driverless cars. Like fish, swarms of driverless cars will demonstrate extraordinary anti-collision abilities, navigating intelligently and instinctively through urban streets full of pedestrians. Some cars will carry a passenger or two. Others will be empty, on their way to drop off a pizza or to pick up a child from daycare.

The epicentre of automotive innovation has moved from Detroit to Silicon Valley, with companies like Google pouring billions of dollars into software development. For the first time, traditional automotive companies will face competition from these software companies.
Driverless cars are disrupting an industry that for decades has operated inside protective walls, sheltered from external competition by high barriers to entry and exclusive relationships between big automakers and preferred suppliers.

“It remains to be seen which paradigm will prevail: the “Microsoft paradigm” or the “Apple paradigm.”

As carmakers and software companies vie for control of the emerging market for autonomous vehicles, it remains to be seen which paradigm will prevail: the “Microsoft paradigm” or the “Apple paradigm.” In the Microsoft paradigm, a software-savvy company (most likely Google or perhaps Uber) would control the market for autonomous vehicles. Car companies would continue to make cost-effective automotive hardware while their more visible go-to-market software partner outfits the “naked” cars with an intelligent operating system.

A happier outcome for car companies would be the Apple paradigm, one in which car companies remain in full control of an autonomous vehicle’s entire product development and sales process, including the profits. Not all consumers of the future will want to ride around in an efficient and generic taxi pod.

In the Apple paradigm, car companies will sell their product directly to consumers who want an expensive specialty model that’s designed for a specific purpose, perhaps an office on wheels, or a mini, autonomous “home away from home,” boasting a bright and recognisable logo.

“Car companies will have to master the difficult art of building AI software, a challenge that has eluded the world’s best roboticists for decades.”

As car and tech companies begin to gather at the table to play their high-stakes, global game of automotive poker, it remains to be seen who will have the winning hand.

Google retains some major advantages as the undisputed industry leader in digital maps and deep-learning software. Add to that Google’s eagerness to create a new revenue stream that’s not reliant on selling Internet ads (currently its primary source of revenue).

Ironically, the car industry’s emphasis on building great hardware might eventually end up being what keeps them in business – unlike automotive companies, software companies such as Google have zero experience in assuming responsibility for the physical safety of the general public on a large scale.

One thing is clear; regardless of how the transition to driverless cars unfolds, car companies will have to master the difficult art of building artificial-intelligence software, a challenge that has eluded the world’s best roboticists for decades.

Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead By Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman