"You can throw away a lot of money really quickly."
Ford Motor might be in a race against rivals to develop and commercialize self-driving cars, but CEO Mark Fields won’t let that change the company’s investment and acquisition strategy. (Even as the pace of acquisitions and partnerships between automakers and autonomous tech and mobility startups quickens.)
“One thing I’ve learned spending a lot of time in Silicon Valley is the term vaporware,,” Fields told Fortune at the LA Auto Show. “Everybody’s got their 30-second spiel that they’re selling you.”
“You can throw away a lot of money really quickly,” he added.
Ford, like any other major company, does its own internal vetting of potential acquisitions. Fields told Fortune that the company is also investing in two venture capital firms that focus on mobility, autonomous technology, cloud computing, and automotive IT.
Ford doesn’t have its own venture capital arm. Instead the automaker is investing in RPM Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm based in Ann Arbor, and Fontinalis Partners, the Detroit-based VC co-founded by Ford executive chairman Bill Ford.
A look at what startups RPM Ventures and Fontinalis Partners are backing as well as Ford’s more recent investments and partnership provides insight into what the automaker might target next.
In recent months, Ford has invested $75 million in Velodyne LiDAR, the leading supplier of technology that lets self-driving cars see and avoid what’s around them and 3D mapping startup Civil Maps. The automaker also acquired Israel-based computer vision and artificial intelligence company SAIPS for an undisclosed sum, and signed an exclusive licensing agreement with machine vision company Nirenberg Neuroscience.
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Fields says their approach to acquisitions and strategic investments focus on three questions: Where do we want to play? How do we want to win? And what are the capabilities that we need?
“And we have to be brutally honest about that,” Fields said in reference to the last question.
It’s difficult to determine precisely where Ford might be lacking since the automaker doesn’t share every detail of its autonomous vehicle development program. But a startup that specializes in developing the artificial intelligence algorithms that become the brains of driverless cars is one hotly pursued area in automotive right now.
Fontinalis is backing more than 20 startups, including the real-time traffic information and driver services company Inrix and NuTonomy, the autonomous vehicle software startup and MIT spinoff. Inrix is the same company that earlier this year acquired OpenCar, a software startup that built an in-car app platform that could challenge Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto.
NuTonomy launched a self-driving taxi service in Singapore earlier this year that the public—not just test engineers—can use. The company says it’s the first-ever public trial of a self-driving taxi service.
Other Fontinalis-backed startups include Lyft, peer-to-peer car-sharing service Turo, Karamba Security, a company focused on protecting connected cars from cyber attacks, and Zendrive, which uses smartphone sensors to measure driver behavior.
Meanwhile, RPM is backing about 16 companies including Automatic, which has created an app and plug-in adapter to turn vehicles into connected cars, as well as Portland-based PolySync, which has developed a middleware platform that lets automakers and other autonomous vehicle startups test, gather data, and eventually deploy driverless vehicle applications without spending an inordinate amount of time and resources. The system is designed to turn software algorithms and sensors into plug-and-play applications.