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Biotechnology

Google's auto ambitions thrust carmakers into quandary

TOKYO -- Google is expanding its operations beyond smartphones to encroach on the automobile industry, forcing leading carmakers to make the tough decision of embracing the tech giant's push or defending their turf.

     High-definition televisions and the latest smartphone models are usually what make the biggest splashes at the Consumer Electronics Show, the world's largest annual trade show. But this year, the hot topic was automobile connectivity.

     Google announced Jan. 6, the day before the CES opening, that it had formed a partnership with Honda, General Motors, Audi, Hyundai and U.S. chipmaker Nvidia to develop an automotive information system based on its Android operating system. This system will enable motorists to use Google's mapping and other cutting-edge technologies while enjoying music and videos.

     At CES, Google also unveiled a new automotive technology through a tie-up with Daimler, with the automaker showing off a technology to link Google Glass and other wearable devices with cars.

     Google will be competing with another Silicon Valley behemoth, Apple, in this new battlefield of smartphones on wheels. The iPhone maker has already forged tie-ups with Honda and Nissan, among others.

     But Google is not only eyeing automobile "infotainment" systems: it is also seeking to elbow into autonomous-driving technology, which major carmakers are fiercely competing to develop.

     "We have no plans to join hands in autonomous cars," a Honda executive declared flatly when the automaker announced its joint effort with Google to develop Android-based automobile systems. Toyota and Nissan are also keeping their distance from Google in this area.

     Google launched its effort to develop self-driving cars in 2010, and its driverless car has logged more than 300,000 miles, or the equivalent of circumnavigating the earth a dozen times. Its new automobile systems would give it a trove of detailed driving data.

     And when combined with its cutting-edge artificial intelligence, this would sharply improve the skills of Google's self-driving cars. While Nissan plans to roll out autonomous cars in 2020, the tech firm says it can bring its cars to market as early as 2017. Development efforts could accelerate even further.

     Automakers are afraid that, if Google masters basic driving controls, they would become just manufacturers of exoskeletons -- just like PC and smartphone makers. Such fears are the reason Toyota and Nissan have not made clear exactly what kind of relationship they plan to have with Google.

     In November, Toyota, Nissan and Honda invited Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to their test-driving session, as part of their effort to "lobby for relaxation of automotive regulations," says an insider. To enhance technology for autonomous cars, data must be collected in road tests affording a variety of weather and traffic conditions. In the U.S., states such as California and Nevada already give the green light to such tests, helping Google.

     In Japan, Nissan is launching road tests for self-driving cars, and Toyota and Honda boast robotic technologies. But these automakers need to determine how much help they want to get from information technology companies and what areas to develop on their own.

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