If Ford and Google partner, who wins?

Ford, Google talk self-driving cars: Report
Ford, Google talk self-driving cars: Report

Industry insiders have long speculated that Silicon Valley's technology firms would eventually team up with Detroit's big automakers to develop self-driving vehicles.

So with sources at Ford and Google confirming the companies are in talks about forming a partnership, it begs the question: Which company would get the better end of the deal?

Though both companies would claim a win if a deal were to take shape, at least one analyst is questioning if Ford would be making a deal with "a wolf at the door."

In a note to investors, RBC Capital analyst Joe Spak went on to write that his firm thought automakers "would be reluctant to hand over the keys to Google (or another tech player), as this moves [them] down the path of being a contract manufacturer."

That would make it more difficult to sell vehicles on brand, Spak explained, referencing trends seen among computers and mobile phones. He admitted, however, that it could simply be an expansion of Ford's Smart Mobility plan, which aims to explore new business models.

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To be sure, both companies would stand to gain in one way or another from a partnership. By working with a global manufacturer like Ford, Google's auto program would get a big boost that could help it accelerate the development of self-driving cars on a large scale.

Meanwhile, Ford's expertise in autonomous-drive vehicles would surge by working closely with Google, which has already built self-driving vehicles that have logged more than a 1.3 million miles on roads in California and Texas.

Details about the possible partnership are limited, as both companies declined to comment on the talks. According to industry sources, if a partnership were to take shape, it would not be exclusive. In any case, make no mistake: Automakers and tech companies are about to team up in more complex ways.

Just a few months ago, Google gave a group reporters brief test drives in its latest autonomous drive vehicles. At the time, Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving car project, said the company's goal was to "get this technology out so that everyone can use it."

"We think the right way to do that is in partnership with those folks, you know the car companies of today, who make these vehicles, do [an] amazing job doing it and have been doing it for 100 years."

What automaker has been making cars and trucks for more than a century? Ford.

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Ford has weathered major challenges over the years, from surviving The Great Depression, to converting its plants to build B-24 Bombers and military vehicles during World War II. Now, the challenge is making sure Ford is ready for the biggest transformation the auto industry has seen in decades.

CEO Mark Fields knows the road to an autonomous-drive future runs through Silicon Valley.

"There is a lot of interest in [self-driving cars] and a lot of innovation going on," he recently told CNBC from the company's new research and development facility in Palo Alto, California. "That is why we are here, because we want to be part of this community."

Fields is well aware of what's at stake for his company and has said repeatedly that Ford should seek partners in the tech world, not run from them.

In partnering with Google, he would be betting on a relationship that pays off with self-driving cars that could make Ford a leader in the next-generation of vehicles.