Whose self-driving car will you trust: Google or the automakers?

Driverless cars are coming, and Google wants to do more than design its software -- it wants to build the cars too

Can the decades-long rivalry between Microsoft and Apple tells us anything about the future of the self-driving car? It can. When hardware and software are developed separately, costs often go down, but so does compatibility -- a conflict that could bring dire results in a moving vehicle.

I'm no fan of robot cars, but like it or not, they appear to be on the way. Nissan just announced it plans to sell a self-driving car by 2020; GM, Toyota, and Audi have similar plans, although they have not set a target date. Google, of course, has been touting its vision of driverless cars for some time.

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It seemed likely that Google would concentrate on software while partnering with automakers to build the hardware. But a report at JessicaLessin.com reveals a different strategy. "Google, which has been working on software to help major automakers build self-driving cars, also is quietly going around them by designing and developing a full-fledged self-driving car, according to people familiar with the matter," writes Amir Efrati, a respected former reporter at the Wall Street Journal.

At first the idea seemed, well, crazy. What does Google know about building a car? But the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. When driverless cars debut there will be almost no margin for software failure. After all, a system crash at 70 mph will bring a whole new meaning to the phrase "blue screen of death."

Hardware and software will have to be perfectly integrated. The excuse that the automaker did a poor job of implementing the software simply won't do. Ask yourself: Who's equipped to do that?

Lessons of the PC wars
Microsoft became famously rich and powerful by selling an operating system that a galaxy of hardware makers could license and use to run their own version of a personal computer. We know the results: a world of lunatic incompatibilities that made Windows notoriously frustrating to use.

Apple, on the other hand, kept tight control of both software and hardware development. The result: higher costs, but an arguably superior product. Even if you don't like the Mac's OS X, it's hard to argue that it isn't better integrated with the hardware it lives on.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule. Samsung, for example, has done a great job implementing Google's Android OS in its Galaxy smartphones. To turn the analogy around, Microsoft failed to make the Surface tablet a decent product even though it controlled the entire development process.

There's no guarantee that Google will do it right. But if I had to place a bet on who would do a better job of integration -- engineers out of Detroit (or Tokyo, for that matter) or Google -- there wouldn't be much doubt in my mind.

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