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Nissan-Renault alliance to join Google on self-driving cars

Automaker group goes all-in on outside partnerships for future of driving

Google affiliate Waymo is viewed as a global leader in self-driving technology, while the Nissan-Renault-Mitsubishi alliance logged combined sales of 10.8 million vehicles worldwide in 2018.

TOKYO -- The alliance of Nissan Motor, Renault and Mitsubishi Motors plans to join Google's camp for developing autonomous taxis and other services using self-driving vehicles, Nikkei has learned.

The automakers intend to work with Waymo, a Google spinoff that is among the leaders in technology for self-driving cars. The companies are in the final phase of talks, and plan to announce the arrangement as early as spring.

The partnership would unite a car alliance whose global sales totaled 10.8 million automobiles in 2018 with a developer whose self-driving vehicles have traveled over 10 million miles on U.S. public roads as of October. Waymo has forged similar deals with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Jaguar Land Rover, but the Nissan-Renault alliance boasts greater scale.

Nissan's pivot to embrace a major outside partner in self-driving marks an attempt to catch up in a field where the alliance trails rivals. BMW and Ford Motor plan to have fully automated driving systems commercialized around 2021, a year ahead of Nissan's 2022 goal.

The alliance and Waymo will cooperate in what is known as mobility as a service, or MaaS, a shift from vehicle ownership to the use of on-demand transportation. Possibilities include developing a fleet of driverless taxis using Nissan vehicles and a system that handles reservation and payments.

A Waymo self-driving minivan cruises along a road. The Google spinoff has started a driverless taxi service in the U.S. (Source: Waymo)

Waymo debuted a commercial self-driving taxi service in the western U.S. city of Phoenix late last year. The Renault alliance's strong presence in electric cars offers the Google affiliate a chance to be at the forefront of establishing standards for next-generation vehicles.

Google is a key player in developing infrastructure for onboard services, with products such as Google Maps. Nissan and Renault, with their wide reach in Asia and elsewhere, can help the company launch self-driving technologies in more markets.

Creating software for autonomous cars requires considerable spending to accumulate and analyze vast amounts of vehicle operation data. Boston Consulting Group estimates the development of self-driving taxis will require $1.8 trillion in investment by 2035.

The financial burden makes it difficult for software developers to operate alone, and many companies have entered cross-industry tie-ups with automakers and other stakeholders.

Nissan and its alliance partners have shared automation technology among themselves, leading to quick commercialization of collision avoidance and driver assistance systems. The group has also forged some partnerships with outside developers. 

Nissan teamed with U.S. space agency NASA in 2015 to develop remote control technology and Japanese online services developer DeNA in 2017 to create a hailing service with automated driving. In September, the alliance decided to fully introduce Google's Android operating system in its onboard information systems starting in 2021.

But the alliance's policy for self-driving had been to collect and analyze their own data and develop software themselves rather than share it with other companies. The need for artificial intelligence to analyze data and operate driverless cars has prompted the alliance to rethink this strategy.

Nissan has been relying more on outside resources to develop connected cars, automated driving, sharing services and electric vehicles -- new areas of auto industry competition collectively referred to as CASE. The automaker decided to sell a battery subsidiary in 2017 and now procures the component from Chinese and other suppliers.

Under former chief Carlos Ghosn, the alliance tended to put practical gains ahead of other considerations in choosing partners. The new leadership chosen following Ghosn's arrest in Japan looks likely to continue this course.

Rival automakers also are expanding their partnerships with other industries. Toyota Motor is collaborating with Uber Technologies to advance the Japanese company's Guardian driver assistance system. Toyota plans to release self-driving cars with Uber's software and the Guardian system in 2021. It also is cooperating with SoftBank Group to popularize its e-Palette, an electric vehicle for mobility services.

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