Could Waymo become the primary systems supplier to automakers in the future?
That's the question as Google's self-driving subsidiary continues its march toward a future dominated by fully autonomous vehicles. The point was underscored this week as Nikkei reported that the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi Motors alliance plans to rely on Waymo for their future self-driving cars.
Essentially, it means the alliance--which sold nearly 11 million autos worldwide last year--would lean on Google to supply the self-driving systems for its vehicles, making Waymo one of if not the biggest so-called tier-one supplier to the auto industry (depending on your view about how quickly we get to an autonomous future). Waymo has been deploying this strategy at a steady but prudent pace. It already is working with Jaguar and FCA (a.k.a. Fiat Chrysler) on electric vehicles and minivans, respectively.
Waymo has also been clocking in more miles and building more experience in autonomous vehicle technology than any other company. It's an important distinction as the industry realizes that virtual miles don't count and algorithms (a.k.a. by the misnomer AI or artificial intelligence) will only help you achieve a certain (but not sufficient) level of safety.
Money is the other intractable factor. Some analysts have estimated that several trillion dollars will have to be invested over the next 15 years to make self-driving vehicles a reality. With sums like that, automakers will need friends.
The Nissan and Waymo partnership is expected to be announced this spring. Meanwhile, other automakers have been looking closely at companies like Aptiv (formerly Delphi) as a potential supplier, upon which they would load their own additional layer of software. Still, the big X factor in autonomous and electric vehicles remains China. With a bottomless market and the ability to regulate where others fear to tread, China could pick a de facto self-driving winner faster than you can say Baidu.