Detroit, Silicon Valley Collaborate on Path to Self-Driving Cars

As the race to get autonomous vehicles on the road revs up, there has been much discussion in the auto industry about who will lead the charge. Because of the new technologies involved in the development of self-driving cars, many initially assumed that Silicon Valley would take the driver’s seat instead of Detroit.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that it will take the unique strengths of both Silicon Valley and Detroit to make self-driving cars a reality.

Manufacturing cars is no simple task, in part because of the many safety regulations governing the fabrication and operation of automobiles. Plus, there are supply chains, rigorous testing, and an infrastructure of dealerships to contend with. Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” culture is perhaps ill-suited to the laborious process of designing, manufacturing, and selling vehicles—Tesla notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, the combination of state-of-the-art technologies—sensors, big data, machine learning algorithms, and more—required to replace the human behind the wheel is beyond the in-house capacity of most legacy auto manufacturers.

Collaboration between these two distinct innovation industries, each with its own culture and historic expertise, looks like the way forward. Ford recently bet big on that type of collaboration when it invested $1 billion in Argo AI, a robotics and machine learning startup founded by former Uber and Google engineers. Ford says Argo will be responsible for developing the “brain” of autonomous vehicles while Ford focuses on the hardware side of production. (More on that in a minute.)

Tom Kelly, executive director of the Automation Alley business association, feels we’re at a turning point.

There has long been a battle between Detroit and Silicon Valley to lead the creation of self-driving cars, and while Silicon Valley may have the traditional auto industry beat on software innovations, Detroit knows best how to make safe, reliable, enduring hardware products that inspire high rates of customer satisfaction, he says.

“Besides Apple, there are very few successful hardware companies in Silicon Valley,” Kelly says. Where he sees a convergence between Detroit and the Bay Area—common ground where they can work together for the benefit of both—is in the development of autonomous vehicles. The auto industry’s response to incursions from Silicon Valley has helped position Michigan to be a tech hub going forward, he adds.

Automation Alley’s recently released annual industry and technology outlook highlights that we’re on the brink of a fourth industrial revolution, signaled by the convergence of physical and digital technologies that are already transforming manufacturing. However, Kelly says Michigan is at risk of a diminishing role in the development of autonomous vehicles if it doesn’t properly prepare for digitization. (Automation Alley’s digitization strategy is called Industry 4.0, which encompasses cloud computing; big data; additive manufacturing; industrial Internet of Things; cybersecurity; modeling, simulation, and visualization; autonomous robotics; and advanced materials.)

Automation Alley’s outlook report is the result of a nationwide survey, conducted last November, of senior technology and manufacturing executives to determine their knowledge of Industry 4.0 technologies and whether they are ready for the digitization of manufacturing.

The report found that 85 percent of manufacturing executives said they expect their … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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