A shiny silver car driving on the open road

SoftBank and Alphabet announce hefty investments in self-driving technology

Image credit: Native Instruments

SoftBank has become the latest company to invest heavily in the race to perfect self-driving technology. Meanwhile, Alphabet has invested an undisclosed sum in the purchase of tens of thousands of minivans to add to its autonomous fleet.

Japanese holding company SoftBank has invested in numerous technology companies, including Nvidia, Uber, Boston dynamics and Alibaba, and is known for owning the world’s largest technology fund: the nearly $100bn (£75bn) Vision Fund.

Now, the firm has thrown its support behind General Motors’ autonomous driving program, Cruise, with $2.25bn (£1.68bn) in funding. This is one of the largest investments so far in self-driving technology. Following the announcement, GM shares rose nearly 13 per cent.

Cruise began life as a start-up, before being acquired by GM in March 2016. Last year, GM announced that it would be investing $14m (£10.5m) into Cruise operations in California, and adding more than 1100 full-time employees by 2021. GM executives hope that autonomous-driving technology could eventually grow into an industry worth trillions of dollars.

Cruise could put autonomous vehicles on the roads of US cities as early as next year with its own take on the robotic ride-hailing service model also touted by rivals Waymo and Uber. Although in 2016 it invested $500m in ride-hailing service Lyft, it is not yet known whether GM will provide the ride-hailing platform itself or partner with an existing company such as Lyft.

Meanwhile, Waymo – Alphabet’s autonomous vehicles subsidiary – has revealed its own plans to invest billions into automotive engineering. It will be purchasing up to 62,000 minivans from Fiat Chrysler for an unknown sum, as part of a project to increase the number of Waymo autonomous vehicles on the road. A source told the Wall Street Journal that the deal could be worth approximately $2bn (£1.5bn).

While autonomous vehicles are considered by many to be the future of personal transport, the technology behind the vehicles still faces technical, regulatory and safety hurdles before automakers can begin to sales.

A number of high-profile accidents – including one that resulted in the death of a pedestrian hit by an Uber car being trialled in Arizona, and a recent series of collisions of Tesla cars with stationary vehicles – have prompted critics to argue that autonomous-driving technology is still a long way to go before it can be classified as safe.

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