March 14, 2016      

Detroit and Silicon Valley are tightening their ties, as carmakers compete for self-driving expertise and software companies find patrons with the infrastructure for producing vehicles.

Commuting habits, road safety, and — most importantly to automakers — car-buying habits could change in the near future as fleets of self-driving vehicles take to the roads, joining ride-sharing services and alternative fuels in a new lap for automotive innovation.

General Motors Corp. is reportedly acquiring Cruise Automation Inc. for about $1 billion to build up its software and development capabilities.

GM had delayed its own Super Cruise self-driving system to 2017. That technology is intended to allow hands-free travel in its CT6 sedan at highway speeds (similar to Tesla’s troubled Autopilot feature).

GM had also recently invested $500 million in Lyft Inc., bought out Sidecar Technologies Inc., and created its Maven service in an effort to compete with ride-sharing company Uber Technologies Inc.

Ride-sharing services are a step on the path toward autonomous vehicles, according to Allied Business Intelligence Inc. (ABI).

“Once the new car-sharing economy reaches its final frontier, robotic car services will transform the industry, resulting in in decreased car ownership, blurred lines between public and private transportation, enhanced social mobility, new infotainment paradigms, and an overall consolidation of the automotive industry,” said Dominique Bonte, managing director and vice president at ABI Research.

GM goes for Cruise control

San Francisco-based Cruise Automation was founded by MIT alumnus Kyle Vogt in 2013. It has 40 employees and had previously raised $18.8 million from Spark Capital, Y Combinator, and other investors. Cruise had been valued at about $90 million.

“We will be committing considerable resources to recruit and grow the capability of the team,” said GM President Dan Ammann. “This will significantly accelerate the timeline for bringing autonomous vehicles to market.”

Cruise's Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan and GM's Dan Amannn

Cruise Automation’s Kyle Vogt and Daniel Kan pose with GM President Dan Ammann.

But he didn’t say exactly when this would happen or how much it would be safer.

Proponents of self-driving cars assert that they won’t suffer from distraction or fatigue, will obey traffic laws, and will accelerate and decelerate more consistently than human-driven vehicles. Robotic cars would also be able to drive more closely together, allowing for denser and more efficient travel, they say.

Cruise is one of the companies to receive a permit to test self-driving cars in California and has released a $10,000 autonomy kit for the Audi A4 and S4.

GM will develop and adopt Cruise’s technology for its vehicles “as soon as possible,” said spokesman Kevin Kelly.

The company hopes to catch up to and even surpass Google Inc., which has claimed that it will have a driverless car on the market within the decade. GM sold nearly 3 million cars in the U.S. and nearly 10 million cars worldwide, and it could begin adding Cruise’s autonomous features to newer models soon, according to TechCrunch.

“We believe this is the best path forward to implement Cruise tech at a massive scale,” said Vogt. “This is a ground-breaking and necessary step toward rapidly commercializing autonomous vehicle technology.”

The deal, which is pending regulatory approval, is expected to close in the second quarter.

Ford spins off Smart Mobility unit

On Friday, Ford Motor Co. said it has established Ford Smart Mobility LLC, a subsidiary for developing autonomous vehicles. It will operate in Dearborn, Mich., and Palo Alto, Calif., where Ford already has a unit with 100 researchers.

Ford didn’t say how much it would spend on its Silicon Valley spinoff.

Jim Hackett, who was a Ford board member and CEO at furniture maker Steelcase, will lead the startup, which will invest in and work on ride-sharing services, self-driving cars, and vehicle connectivity. Under Hackett, Steelcase kept up with the trend from cubicles toward open offices.

“Our plan is to quickly become part of the growing transportation services market, which already accounts for $5.4 trillion in annual revenue,” said Ford President and CEO Mark Fields.

As part of that effort, Ford announced its FordPass smartphone parking app and FordHubs showrooms in shopping malls. It is also testing ride-sharing and capabilities to find parking in London.

Ford’s Edge model includes driver-assist features, and the company is testing 30 autonomous vehicles in Arizona, California, and Michigan. It has even filed a patent for a drop-down projector screen that would cover the windshield of its self-driving car for passenger entertainment.

In car-to-car communications, Ford and St. Petersburg State Polytechnic University are working on a prototype “intelligent connectivity manager,” which would allow vehicles to use the cloud to communicate when they’re in areas with poor connectivity.

In addition, Ford is partnering with drone maker DJI on a software developer challenge to allow emergency responders to send drones from their vehicles to otherwise inaccessible areas.

Toyota hires entire Jaybridge staff

Prizing a company’s brains over its brawn, Toyota Motor Corp. has hired all 16 employees from Jaybridge Robotics Inc. for its own autonomous-vehicle efforts.

Cambridge, Mass.-based Jaybridge provided shovel-spotting assistance, long-haul dump truck automation, and automated systems for agriculture.

The company, which spun out of MIT in 2008, had expertise in vehicle motion modeling, navigation and perception, visualization, and human-robot interfaces.

Jaybridge’s former employees will work at the Cambridge offices of the Toyota Research Institute (TRI). The world’s largest automaker plans to spend $1 billion over five years on TRI’s work in New England and near Stanford University in Silicon Valley.

“Where Jaybridge has historically limited its focus to industrial applications such as agriculture and mining, TRI is going after the big one: helping to reduce the nearly 1.25 million traffic fatalities each year, worldwide,” said Jeremy Brown, Jaybridge CEO. “We couldn’t be more excited.”

Since TRI hired Jaybridge’s staff but didn’t acquire the company outright, it’s unclear whether Jaybridge will continue operating.

TRI hires Jabridge team

However, Jaybridge did have some significant partners, including the U.S. military, systems integrator Honeywell, and robotics companies Bluefin Robotics Corp. and Harvest Automation Inc.

Toyota had already stocked up on leadership talent, hiring Gil Pratt, former head of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, as CEO of TRI. It had also hired James Kuffner from Google and packed its advisory board with tech luminaries.

Pratt noted that artificial intelligence and software are becoming as important to automobiles as hardware, calling self-driving cars “robots on wheels.”

In addition, Toyota already has the most patents around autonomous vehicles, with 1,400.

The race is on to recruit roboticists

The race to develop self-driving cars has included a race to recruit robotics and artificial intelligence talent. The most notorious incident was when Uber Technologies Inc. partnered with Carnegie Mellon University and then hired away 40 researchers.

“There is definitely a worldwide battle for talent,” Andrew Moore told The Wall Street Journal. He is dean of CMU’s School of Computer Science and was previously a vice president of engineering at Google.

“In the computer science world right now, administrators and leadership are becoming more like recruiters for high-powered sports teams or executives,” Moore said. He noted that enrollment in CMU’s computer science program increased 35 percent last year.

There seem to be are no hard feelings between Uber and CMU because the company gave the university $5.5 million to rebuild its program, and its government contracts were unaffected. CMU plans to hire 17 staffers and now has a jobs pipeline for its graduates in addition to the uptick in enrollment.

Feds focus on clarifying rules, but roadblocks remain

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) told Google last month that it “will interpret ‘driver’ in the context of Google’s described motor vehicle design as referring to the [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants,” the first step to U.S. government recognition of such vehicles.

However, carmakers must still deal with a patchwork of state laws, which were written with human drivers in mind, as well as concerns about the handoff between humans and autonomous systems, said an NHTSA study published this month.

Executives from Delphi Automotive PLC, GM, Google, and Lyft will testify to Congress tomorrow about “the appropriate role of government in promoting innovation including removing unnecessary hurdles, and their strategy to grow consumer adoption of this new technology.”

It’s likely that they’ll repeat the yet-to-be-proven promise of improved safety and ask for streamlined federal rules to supersede state regulations. There were 32,675 traffic fatalities in the U.S. in 2015, a slight increase from the year before. About a third were from drunk driving, one of the impairments that self-driving vehicles could compensate for.

The NHTSA will also hold hearings in Washington, D.C., on April 8, and in California later this year.

President Obama’s proposed federal budget includes $4 billion for research and infrastructure related to self-driving cars over the next 10 years. The administration also plans to clarify autonomous vehicle guidelines in the first half of this year, but the long-term prospects will be affected by the upcoming election.

Seven cities are finalists for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge, which will award $100,000 each and a grand prize of $40 million to one for communication, vision, and infrastructure research and development.

There are also cultural barriers to adoption. According to AAA, three-quarters of Americans are “afraid” to ride in self-driving vehicles, and two-thirds of Americans prefer to own their own cars rather than share, found Kelly Blue Book Co.

To overcome this reluctance, some automakers are planning a gradual rollout of vehicle autonomy. For instance, Honda Motor Co. is adding advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) to its Civic LX sedan for $1,800.

“Like it or not, autonomous cars are coming, and coming fast,” said Akshay Anand, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book.