Google's Spending A Lot On Autonomous Cars, But It's Not Going To Sell Them

September 17, 2015

All signs point to Google being a massively disruptive force in the auto industry, challenging beloved brands around the globe with its own line of intelligent, self-driving vehicles. 

But could we be misreading the tea leaves? Maybe so. Yesterday, one of Google's top brass told attendees at the Frankfurt Auto Show that the company has no intentions of becoming an automaker.

THE EVIDENCE

Since 2009, Google has spent untold millions of dollars developing autonomous cars. Last we checked, those cars had racked up some 1.7 million miles, the majority of which rolled on by without human interference. And yet, the cars had been involved in just 11 accidents -- all of which were due to other drivers or Google researchers who were momentarily controlling the cars.

A year-and-a-half ago, Google made headlines when it unveiled its first autonomous car prototype. (Until then, the company had been using Toyota and Lexus vehicles tricked out with autonomous systems.) And just a couple of days ago, everyone in the auto world did a collective spit-take when they heard that Google had hired former Hyundai (and Ford, and TrueCar) bigwig, John Krafcik, to oversee its autonomous car project. 

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So, it was a little surprising when Philipp Justus, who oversees much of Google's operations in Europe, told the media in Frankfurt that yes, Google is working on autonomous cars, but it's doing so in conjunction with automakers. It's not planning to launch an auto manufacturing business of its own. Specifically, Justus said, "Google also does not intend to become a car manufacturer".

That's pretty blunt. 

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

On the one hand, you could read the "does not intend" in Justus' statement as a disingenuous disclaimer -- kind of like politicians saying, "I have no intention of running for president" right before they launch exploratory committees. The phrase "does not intend" leaves the door open for Google to say a year from now, "Oh, you know, demand was just too strong, so we decided to make cars after all".

That's not how we think things will go, though. Over the past several years, Google has been involved in some very expensive trial-and-error projects. One thing that's been proven time and time again is that Google is great at making simple, intuitive software, but hardware? Not so much. 

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In other words, we have a hunch that Google will follow the Android guidemap, selling autonomous car software to automakers, not autonomous cars to consumers. Sure, it may sell a few of its koala-esque self-drivers for corporate campuses, but the much bigger bucks will come from being a supplier.

If so, the real question is whether automakers will actually buy their software from Google. Or, as we've seen in the field of telematics and infotainment, will they stubbornly continue to build their own systems that car-owners hate? Feel free to share your thoughts on that -- or other Google-ish issues -- below.

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