Fiat Chrysler joins BMW in race to make self-driving cars

Waymo's self-driving Fiat Chrysler minivan on display before a January news conference in Detroit.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles will cooperate with BMW to develop self-driving cars, the companies said Wednesday, as traditional automakers look to defend their turf against cash-rich Silicon Valley giants eager to upend the industry.

So-called autonomous vehicles are expected to transform the auto industry within the next decade. The new technology pits established carmakers, with their decades of experience and global supply chains, against the likes of Google and Apple, which have greater financial resources as well as greater expertise in the software that will be crucial to the development of driverless vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler has struggled more than most carmakers to compete in this new world because of meager profits. The company has largely stayed on the sidelines while rivals like Volkswagen or General Motors moved into technology-oriented businesses like car sharing or digital mapping.

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The long-term risk for Fiat Chrysler was that, absent a major shift, it would be relegated to producing cars for Silicon Valley companies that would supply the software and take most of the profit. Waymo, a unit of Google’s parent, Alphabet, has been using Fiat Chrysler minivans to test self-driving technology. In June, Apple confirmed longtime speculation that it is working on autonomous systems, while giving few details.

But on Wednesday, Fiat Chrysler said that it would join BMW’s existing alliance with Intel and the chip maker’s newly acquired self-driving technology unit, Mobileye. Fiat Chrysler and BMW said they were open to additional partners.

“In order to advance autonomous driving technology,” Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of Fiat Chrysler said in a statement, “it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers and suppliers.”

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Still, it will be a huge challenge for established carmakers to remain relevant. The financial resources of the Silicon Valley companies dwarf those of the automakers. Apple is worth 40 times as much on the stock market as Fiat Chrysler. Indeed, if they chose to, Apple or Google could acquire a carmaker for sums that, by their standards, would amount to pocket change.

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James Hodgson, a senior analyst at ABI Research, said it was possible for established carmakers to be able to defend their positions, but, he added, “You should not underestimate the challenge facing them.”