Consumers don’t usually think of companies like Uber, BMW, and Apple as competitors, but such disparate companies are up against each other in a contested field: self-driving cars. Big tech companies, automakers, and transportation startups are all investing heavily in self-driving technologies, and it’s kicked off a heated race between them.
The stakes of that race are high. It's possible that billions, even trillions of dollars of theoretical value are going to waste each year in the form of cars sitting idle in driveways and garages or of people sitting unproductively behind the wheel. And that’s not to mention personnel costs in the trucking and taxi industries, which stand to fall dramatically when the practice of paying human drivers becomes obsolete. Whichever firm can bring autonomous cars to the mass market the soonest, while delivering the a high-quality product, gets to stake out a tremendously valuable claim. “I tend to think there won’t be a lot of unique solutions out there,” says Richard Wallace, the director of transportation systems at the Center for Automotive Research, an auto-industry research firm. “We’ll dovetail towards the best one.”
On Sunday, The New York Times reported that Waymo, the autonomous-driving-tech arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, signed a deal to partner with Lyft, the ride-hailing company that perennially comes in second place to Uber (at least in purely financial terms). Lyft itself has a close relationship with GM, which invested half a billion dollars in the company last year. (And GM also bought the self-driving-tech startup Cruise outright in the spring of 2016.) This new partnership may represent the first of the contours of the automotive marketplace of the future come into view. “It looks like a joint front against Uber. I don’t know if that’s truly their motivation, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me,” says Wallace.