Here’s why Ford will build the Google self-driving car next year

It will happen, if their history of partnership is any clue.

Google self-driving car prototype

Rumors are circulating that Ford may build the Google autonomous car.

As Automotive News reported today, the official announcement could come in two weeks at CES in Las Vegas. An unnamed source said the negotiations are almost finalized.

Just a few weeks ago, Tesla made headlines when they released a software patch that lets you go hands-free and feet-free in a Model S sedan. While it’s a milestone in engineering and the first time a car has been able to drive at highway speeds for long periods of time unassisted, only Google seems to have the engineering chops to make a car drive on its own in downtown traffic, controlling speed, steering, and braking without human intervention. (Volvo certainly comes close.)

The reason it makes so much sense for Ford to partner with Google is that they’ve been doing that for years. You can already send Google Maps directions to the navigation system in your Ford Escape, for example, or use Android Auto. Way back in 2011, Ford announced they were working with Google on predictive analytics in the car. It was a way to find out if it was better for fuel economy to take a different route based on traffic conditions, among other things.

As reported, it’s a bit of a no brainer. Former CEO of Ford Alan Mulally already sits on the Google board and Ford opened an innovation lab in Silicon Valley earlier this year. My guess is that the lab was partly a way to be “closer to the action” and make some inroads (no pun intended) at Google, develop partnerships and just get their fingers in the pie.

But next year? Is that even possible? My view is that Tesla paved the way (literally, and also as an insurance and legal precedence) for the fully autonomous car, one that can understand traffic conditions. Self-driving car technology is all about the algorithms; it's basically a math problem. There are thousands of calculations related to speed, steering, and even the angle of the car on the road. And, there are thousands of scenarios. As the truck ahead of you swerves to avoid a pylon in the road, should your car move to the left or to the right? Should it speed up or slow down? If the car brakes, will that be more dangerous or less dangerous?

The good news is that, despite what other automakers like Toyota say about the human driver being in control at all times, a computer is much better at using on-board sensors to scan in all directions at once and avoid problems. I’ve driven just about every modern car equipped with sensors to help with automated driving, and it feels a bit like having a shield that protects you.

Granted, no computer could ever assess every situation perfectly. But then again, humans can’t do that, either. I’d rather have the car avoid an accident I don’t see.

The one major detriment to making this a reality next year is called YouTube. The videos of Tesla drivers not paying attention as they drive are downright frightening. There’s a lot of excitement about the tech, but all it will take is one video showing a Model S crashing when the driver isn’t paying attention to push this tech back into the dark ages. Let's just hope that doesn't happen before the Ford-Google car exists.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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