Google and Apple will become leading players in the automotive market — and car bosses are running scared.
That was the prediction of one leading analyst after chief executives at this week’s Geneva Motor Show, which saw the European unveiling of the Audi R8 e-tron, admitted they feared the impact of the US West Coast technology giants on their patch who have grabbed the headlines in the development of driverless cars.
“The car industry is very alive to and very aware of the impact of Google and Apple,” said one of London’s leading car consultants, who asked not to be named because of his closeness to conventional car manufacturers.
“I absolutely do believe that they [Google and Apple] are here to stay as a [car] manufacturer,” the analyst continued. “They will need other automotive manufacturers, but after they build up their own supply chains they can go their own way.”
Google has already begun manufacturing electric driverless test cars in a venture supported by car-parts suppliers such as Bosch, LG Electronics and Continental, the tyre-maker.
Apple has hired hundreds of engineers and is believed to be on the verge of unveiling its autonomous car.
In a world of autonomous, so-called driverless vehicles, the size or power of car engines will be meaningless it is reckoned because, if such cars are to drive on the road together, their interaction will have to be regulated.
In such a world, the gadgetry and in-car technology becomes paramount — as for younger drivers so does the badge or brand. It is on both those counts that Google and Apple as carmakers are expected to score highly.
Dave Leggett, a leading industry blogger at just-auto.com, said he believed Google and Apple were more likely to team up with existing car groups in brand partnerships much like Swatch, the Swiss watchmaker, did with Mercedes Benz to produce a car, which eventually became the Smart car.
“They have vast R&D resources, there’s a huge opportunity ahead and [cars are] a part of our everyday life that a brand like Apple can’t ignore,” said Mr Leggett .“It’s a strategically important question for the company’s long-term growth.”
The car giants in Japan and Germany are already far advanced in developing their autonomous vehicles to the point where hidden sensors for cruise control, automatic braking, lane alerts and parking assistance are already standard in most premium-priced vehicles.
Toyota has been trialling autonomous cars on the Tokyo expressway for at least two years. Driverless cars are on the streets of Britain in trials in London, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry.
While many in the industry do not believe autonomous cars will go mainstream for at least ten years, Toyota has privately told The Timesthat it expects to have a fully functional driverless fleet ready for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
The cross-industry name-calling has already begun with Sergio Marchionne, head of the Fiat and Chrysler empire, labelling Google and Apple as “disruptive interlopers”.
At Geneva, Mr Marchionne said the motor industry would be foolish to ignore the tech giants. “They are incredibly serious,” he said. “What’s more, I think their interest is exactly what this industry needed. We need a disruptive interloper to shake things up.”
The big German companies are less cowed. “There is tremendous opportunity from the convergence of the west coast technology and the auto industry with its huge technology depth,” said Dieter Zetsche, chairman of Mercedes-Benz. “We are not afraid. We are confident about our own strength.”