John Doe spent this year's CES at Booth 3315, standing next to a deep red, curvaceous, quirky electric sedan with doors that pivot like wings. The EMotion is the work of Fisker Inc, the car designer's latest venture. But the stage Fisker and the car stood on didn't say Fisker Inc. It said Quanergy—a Silicon Valley-based startup that makes lidar sensors for self-driving cars; it has plans to embed several of its units is discreetly into the new car.
Fisker wasn't the only one shacking up at CES. Ford’s display highlighted not cars, but its deal with Dominos to work on autonomous pizza deliveries. Pizza Hut announced a partnership with Toyota. Lyft joined forces with Aptiv to give showgoers rides in autonomous cars. Nobody was going it alone.
But at the Detroit Auto Show just a week later—which is still about cars, not all this mobility stuff—Mercedes didn't unveil the newest, brashest G-Class in conjunction with its exhaust supplier. Dodge didn’t team up with a construction company to showcase its new Ram 1500 pickup. Unless you're a car geek, you've probably never heard of Delphi, ZF, Bosch, or Valeo, the global megasuppliers on which the auto industry depends. That's because automakers take pains never to mention those companies (unless they screwed up, say, an airbag design). When they buy an advanced cruise control system or hybrid components, they slap their own made-up name on them, and market them as their innovations.
The race to develop driverless cars is reshaping that relationship. As cars learn to drive themselves, they require components from new sorts of companies, many of them startups. "The entire value chain is now screwed up, we're seeing something different happening here," says Dennis Nobelius. He's the CEO of Zenuity, a joint venture focused on self-driving software, formed between safety equipment supplier Autoliv and Volvo, and which also has partnerships with Nvidia, TomTom, and Ericsson.
This setup—which sounds like the business equivalent of an interpersonal arrangement made at Burning Man—is typical of the new ecosystems being created. They are replacing the traditional hierarchy of car builder and tier one, two, and three component makers that a supply chain.
“With all the new technologies merging, you have to have partners, because you can’t be expert in everything,” Fisker says from his corner of the Quanergy booth. The car companies are experts in building engines, but not image processing software, or sensors. They don’t have data on how people really use cars, traditionally just handing over the keys at the dealership, and they don't know how they'll use them in the future. Fisker may understand electric propulsion, but he's no lidar expert.
But why all the trumpeting? Why the raging river of press releases announcing deals that no one not directly involved cares about? Why the shared stages? Because all these companies—the automakers, the tech giants, the stodgy suppliers, the gungho startups—are desperate to tell the world they're with it, they're hip to the massive shift autonomous technology will visit upon them.