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Autos

Fiat Chrysler joins BMW-Intel to develop driverless cars

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid
The Chrysler Pacifica.
(Webb Bland / FCA)

Automaker FCA, also known as Fiat Chrysler, buffed up its image as a technology player Wednesday by linking with BMW and Intel to develop driverless cars.

Last year, BMW and Intel, which recently bought driverless technology provider Mobileye, formed a partnership to develop a platform for autonomous cars that could be sold or licensed to other automakers. Thus far, Fiat Chrysler is the only other automaker to climb aboard.

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“I certainly think they’re going to gain more than they bring,” said James Hodgson, senior analyst at ABI Research. “They certainly don’t bring much technology to the table.”

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Fiat Chrysler, an Italy-centric multinational company with extensive operations in the U.S., including the Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep brands, lags other major automakers in driverless technology.

The company announced a partnership last year with Waymo, Google’s autonomous driving unit. Google provides the driverless technology for robot cars under development, and Fiat Chrysler provides Pacifica minivans and helps Waymo integrate the technology into the vehicles.

Nonetheless, BMW and Intel stand to gain from Fiat Chrysler’s participation, Hodgson said, because it adds a mass-market manufacturer to the mix. BMWs are a common sight in posher neighborhoods, but BMW remains a niche brand in many markets.

Besides buying Mobileye, a vision processing specialist, Intel purchased artificial intelligence hardware and software startup Nervana last year. Based in San Diego, Nervana is developing deep learning technologies that will be integrated into Intel’s computer server systems. In part, the AI will be used to communicate with driverless cars through cloud computing.

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The BMW-Intel partership “is integrating what you need to put together a functioning system end to end,” Hodgson said.

The BMW-Intel effort also includes major auto industry suppliers Delphi and Continental.

They face aggressive competition, however: from Google and Apple; from other automakers; from an array of startups; and from a fast-growing chip company, Nvidia, which makes semiconductors and software for driverless cars and counts Toyota, Audi, Mercedes-Benz and China’s Baidu among its partners.

Some analysts wonder whether image buffing is the main reason for Fiat Chrysler Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne to link with BMW-Intel.

“In the past 48 hours we’re heard rumors of Chinese interest in buying the automaker, and now we know FCA is actively working with major tech players like Intel and Mobileye to develop self-driving capabilities,” said Karl Bauer at market researcher Kelley Blue Book. “Marchionne is giving the company a viable stake in the autonomous vehicle race, which further elevates FCA’s desirability among potential partners or suitors.”

In a statement, Marchionne said his company will “directly benefit from the synergies and economies of scale that are possible when companies come together with a common vision and objective.”

Intel Chief Executive Brian Krzanich said Intel is “thrilled to welcome” Fiat-Chrysler, which brings the group “a step closer to delivering the world’s safest autonomous vehicles.”

russ.mitchell@latimes.com

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Twitter: @russ1mitchell


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