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Here's why the auto industry is making big moves with driverless technology

With the tech industry nipping at its heels, automakers like Ford and GM are pouring more resources into the development of driverless technology.


The legacy automakers are coming for you, Google, albeit a bit slowly.

Though there’s debate over how soon consumers will be turning the wheel over to robot cars, it’s clear that the race toward the driverless future has begun. The conversations around driverless cars and the future of autonomous technology, though, are no longer centered around the next big thing Silicon Valley companies are churning up. Increasingly, the words "self-driving cars" can be said in the same breath as the likes of traditional automakers such as Mercedes-Benz, BMW, General Motors, Toyota and Ford.

Last week was a perfect example of how serious the auto industry is about navigating this new frontier. In addition to Ford announcing that it is looking for a tech exec to head up its newly formed mobility subsidiary and GM acquiring autonomous tech startup Cruise, Toyota announced that it had acquired artificial intelligence firm Jaybridge Robotics.

Automakers are becoming more serious about pouring their resources into developing this autonomous technology. At the core of what’s driving this relatively sudden surge of interest is the competitive threat tech giants like Google, Apple and Tesla pose. If Silicon Valley’s motto is "innovate or die," the auto industry’s motto is "innovate if we have to." The automakers of the world are typically incentivized to innovate for at least one of three reasons: Competition, regulatory requirements or consumers pushing for change.

Take rearview cameras, for example. Though Congress directed the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to develop regulations that would require rearview cameras by 2011, it wasn’t until 2014 that the NHTSA required that all new cars, SUVs and minivans include backup cameras by 2018. Shortly after, Honda and Acura led the pack in committing to integrating rearview cameras into its entire line of 2015 models.

As far as driverless technology regulations go, aside from President Obama’s recent commitment to invest $4 billion into vehicle automation programs over the next 10 years there have been pitifully few mandates — federal or otherwise — to develop this autonomous technology. Most consumers, similarly, are not yet on board with self-driving cars. The pace at which the auto industry is working to develop driverless technology, then, is largely a result of maintaining its business in the face of competition from new players.

And it shows. Though the automakers have been lauded for their recent investments and progress, it’s clear the moves are being made with their competitors in mind. Ford’s decision to parcel out its mobility arm — which not only protects the company’s stock price but also ensures a level of flexibility to experiment — was in part a move to attract tech talent away from Google, Tesla and Apple. Similarly, GM acquired a Silicon Valley native team which it plans to scale in its purchase of Cruise. It also got a hold of a developed autonomous technology upon which the company can build rather than having to start from scratch, bringing GM that much closer to where Google X already is. Toyota, too, is staffing up its Silicon Valley R&D lab with Jaybridge’s experienced robotics staff.

With its recent progress, the auto industry is actively trying to level the playing field and eventually catch up to the tech industry. Though companies like Google, Apple and Tesla (and maybe soon Faraday Future and Uber) are keen on beating out their competitors as well, the clear advantage is these companies are setting the standard to match, not scrambling to meet it.

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