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Can Google build its own ‘Nexus car’ without the help of automakers?

Google(s goog) is weighing building its own line of self-driving cars independent of the automakers, according to new report by Amir Efrati on Efrati doesn’t name his sources, but he’s a veteran Google reporter formerly of the Wall Street Journal so I have little reason to doubt them. But it does raise an interesting question: Can a tech company — even one with the resources and innovation drive of Google — build an automobile from scratch?

First the details of the report: Efrati’s sources said Google is making no headway with the entrenched automakers over partnerships to build self-driving vehicles. So it’s opted to go around them, talking to auto-components designers Continental and Magna International about having them build cars to Google’s design. (German paper Frankfurter Allgemeine also reported Continental has struck a deal with both Google and IBM(s ibm).)

Efrati’s report added that Google might use these cars as part of a “robo-taxi” service that prowls cities picking up passengers on demand.


Google is no stranger to tackling big hardware projects. It became an ISP when it launched Google Fiber. It makes its own tablets and smartphones, it’s been designing its own data centers for year, and it’s even attempting to create the world’s first borderless network flying in the stratospheric winds with Project Loon.

But make a car? That requires considerable commitment of finances and resources, not to mention the need to recruit a different type of engineer — mechanical rather software. Silicon Valley has created car companies before, but it’s not as if Elon Musk started Tesla Motors(s tsla) as a side business of PayPal(s ebay). He helped found a whole new company devoted to making an electric vehicle, received investment from the automakers, and recruited some of the best and brightest of the auto industry to help run it.

While Google is probably one of the few companies in the world with the resources and wherewithal to start an auto-manufacturing operation in-house, you’ve got to wonder if all the trouble is worth it. When Google made its Nexus line of phones, it was mainly trying to create concept phones that demonstrated Android’s full potential. When it got serious about making phones it went out and bought a phone maker: Motorola. I seriously doubt Google is going to go out and buy a struggling automaker.

The Nexus, however, might be a good model if Google is sincere about proving its autonomous car concept. Google could be aiming to create the Nexus equivalent of a vehicle: the car would be built by someone else, while the software and technology that made it autonomous, intelligent and connected would all be Google.

Cohda Wireless autonomous car

Still, it does seem that the auto industry and Google are heading toward the same goal even if they’re getting there in entirely different ways. While Google appears more focused on building a sensor-driven vehicle, automakers like Ford(s f), Honda(s hmc) and BMW have been trying to combine sensor technologies with networking technologies that allow cars to communicate their positions and intent with one another.

Those automakers could be moving far too slowly — focusing on “assisted driving” rather than taking the driver out of the equation — for Google’s tastes. So maybe Google believes a “Nexus car,” one demonstrating the full capability of its driverless technology, is the kick in the pants in the auto industry needs.

19 Responses to “Can Google build its own ‘Nexus car’ without the help of automakers?”

  1. While systems designed to assist the driver of a vehicle will require lots of programming, truly autonomous vehicles will require something like two orders of magnitude more programming, and programmers will be much in demand. After the recent, highly publicized computer crash, Google should be able to hire numerous programmers formerly employed at NASDAQ.

  2. Walter McLeod

    hmmm, if google does pursue auto manuf, the car will likely be an eV or hybrid.

    their business models have tended towards the masses (Android/YouTube), a hybrid makes the most sense (for now).

    that is, unless google has something up their sleeves regarding electric vehicles …

  3. Jack N Fran Farrell

    Car makers ultimately have the same problem with Google as Microsoft. MS learned that ultra efficient computers that run 85% of the time but that appear to be dedicated to serving the user all the time will kill off storing massive amounts of software on each machine and then using tiny parts of the software a tiny part of the time.

    Same thing for cars. Capabilities that are needed once a month are driving costly hardware to users who don’t need it. Other industries stand to take a 10 fold decrease in market: notably insurance, personal injury lawyers and late night TV advertizing.

  4. mfwziegler

    It’s good for Google to iterate software to make a final version. They use a lean start up process where they run lots of small experiments, validate their ideas, and revise. Spending several years to make a perfect product like the Tesla model S is risky, but necessary to make something like a car, and I highly doubt Google wouldn’t realize this if they started on the project.

  5. realjjj

    It might be that car makers and Google don’t have the same goals at all.
    If you look at the original article there is a quote from Dieter Zetsche and many in the industry might think in a similar way at the very least for financial reasons.
    If all cars are pretty much the same damn robot, selling cars and making money becomes a lot more difficult. Cars would become better fit for the task ,performance and looks would matter a lot less and an increasing number of people wouldn’t buy a car anymore.

    The question is not if they can build a car but if they can build the right car, they need to strike a balance between the best design and cost for a driverless car while keeping it sane enough to be marketable.

    Somehow people get lost in the details, to make it clear i would ask : Can Apple make a phone? It’s a very similar situation, the car can be reinvented ,they just need to make the right car.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Realjjj,

      As always thanks for commenting. All good points, but I think Google and the automakers have more in common than Efrati gives credit. He quoted Daimler, which has hardly been on the cutting edge if the connected car if you ask me. Companies like Ford, Audi and GM are much aggressive on this front. Bill Ford’s connected car vision sounds very similar to Google’s but they are moving slower than Google would want.

      As for the “right car” I agree completely, but taking the steps to build that car is a huge commitment, much more than manufacturing a phone. It has to account for huge manufacturing operations, replacement parts, dealers, and it has continue supporting that car years after the sale. You could argue that much of the smartphone is in Google’s core area, but a good deal of the car is just old school mechanics. Much of Google’s design resources would have to go into build the actual “car” part of it, not the “smart” part of it.

      That’s why I think a concept or Nexus car makes more sense. Google can get into the market to show how it’s ideas work and then exit quickly. It doesn’t want to be Honda or even Tesla, I assume. But who knows. Google never ceases to amaze me.

      • realjjj

        The connected car is great and all ( a few years back there was a decent presentation at Hot Chips i think ,if you haven’t seen a video) but from a financial point of view a driverless car is pretty terrible for automakers.
        The ultimate goal for Google would be that people don’t own cars , they maybe pay a subscription and Google Now gets you the right car at the right time and location with the right settings.There are a lot of people that buy cars they don’t need, a lot of fuel wasted ,quite a huge ecosystem that is oversized and the ideal Google way would “fix” that.
        If Google can truly disrupt the car industry , after investing quite a lot to do so it makes no sense to aim for a Nexus instead of a Moto X.
        As for building the car ,vast majority of parts are not build by carmakers, they can use a lot of existing parts and going forward cars would become a lot simpler when most are autonomous and 3D printing evolves. Also the costs might be higher but the ASP is high too.
        They do seem to be pondering about how it will be marketed, i think that investment in Uber is related. Maybe they’ll never sell the car , maybe we just pay per trip or a sub.
        Lets say they make a simple, smallish electric car and they have their own solar farms to fuel the fleet . No idea what the TCO would be, pretty costly at first when they still need a driver, a lot less later on when the driver is gone but it might just be cheap enough.
        It is an opportunity,they just need to figure out how to do it right and they do have 54B in cash so i wouldn’t say they lack resources.
        It is true that a car is not what Google does but i think Page said a few times that he wants Google to be/do a lot more so maybe we should expect Google to cease any great opportunities it sees.
        Beyond that, autonomous cars would help Google map the world in real time and Google “owns” the time we spend in the car so they can server some ads here and there. The navigation tech can scale down to shelves stocking robots, butler robots and so on (more devices Google can make/power) while also mapping the world so it doesn’t stop with cars. Ofc at that point Google gets scarier than the NSA.

  6. Mcbeese

    Google doesn’t understand quality. They throw stuff out that is half-baked and then they iterate to a final product. That’s fine for gmail and HUD glasses, not such a good cultural fit for a car.

    • Emanuel Popan

      uhhh…. products like gmail aren’t half baked,

      1. they have different product categories whereas everyone else throws all e-mails into one basket, added hangouts, money transfer. Remember that gmail and news were started by google employees on there spare time!

      2. HUD glasses were designed for developers and they recently bought additional patents to further improve the customer version

      3. FINALLY, driverless car never had an accident in over 350,000 miles except ironically shortly after the driver started driving.

      4. Google updates and comes out with new products faster than any company today, every other news article coming out talks about some new google product or update. You are clearly misinformed, maybe you should do you’re research and not get ahead of yourself.


      • realjjj

        He has a point actually and you make it for him too but he misses a key fact.
        Google does do that and Gmail was that too,they launched it as a Beta if you remember.Glass was supposed to hit the market a while ago and it’s been delayed a few times, they messed up in a rather big way, hope it won’t be fatal.
        However, the half-baked version of this product is already on the road.
        At some point it will be time for the final product ,weather it’s their own car or just their navigation we’ll see.
        Also Google seems to be changing,maybe it’s not the Google that made the Nexus devices but the one that bought Moto.

    • Walter McLeod

      Tesla would be a good business partner, if Elon Musk is interested in a lower priced, mass market product.

      that’s google’s sweet spot – technology for the masses…

    • Peter McIlhon

      Why skeptical about trusting a computer? We trust them every day with FAR more important tasks than getting us from point A to point B – in fact we already do trust them with GPS for example.