Partner or Competitor? Inside the Complicated World of Self-Driving Car Tech Rivalries

January 9, 2018, 9:51 AM UTC

In the race to deploy self-driving vehicles to the masses, much of the focus has centered on which companies are in the lead. What is often lost or ignored is the intertwined relationships these rivals have with each other.

In a word, it’s complicated. And during the Fortune Brainstorm Tech dinner Monday night in Las Vegas, special guests Baidu Group (BIDU) President and COO Qi Lu, HERE CEO Edzard Overbeek, and NIO USA CEO Padmasree Warrior revealed just how entangled it can be. The dinner also featured an interview with Fortune’s Business Person of the Year for 2017: Jensen Huang, co-founder, president, and CEO of Nvidia (NVDA).

“Everybody competes and everybody partners,” Overbeek said during the dinner, held in conjunction with CES, the big annual tech trade show. “In the first stage of a market that’s as big as the one we’re playing in, that’s the normal stakes that we’re in.”

“We believe there is no single company on the planet that can solve this problem by themselves,” Overbeek added. “Those companies that think that, have lost the battle already.”

Consider Baidu, China’s largest search engine. Just hours before the dinner, Baidu announced it was launching a more robust next-generation version of Apollo, its open self-driving platform. Baidu’s self-driving team initially wasn’t sure what direction to pursue, Qi said, adding that they debated focusing on cars or services. “In some cases, we still see some companies struggling with that.”

In the end, Baidu chose to focus on services, like data and high-skilled computing. Baidu is betting that its tech, which Qi said is similar to how Google’s Android operating system works, will help it become China’s leading developer of self-driving vehicles.

And that means connecting with a lot of other companies. Baidu has partnered with more than 90 companies, including Udacity (UDACITY), Microsoft (MSFT), and TomTom (TOMTOM-N-V). The company said Monday that its platform will support four main computing platforms: Intel, Nvidia, NXP, and Renesas in 2018.

Baidu is also an investor in NIO, the Chinese electric-car maker that launched sales of its first vehicle in December.

“I think today there’s a confusion on who partners with whom and whose competing with whom; I think we try to muddy the waters with everything,” Warrior said. “There’s an ecosystem that’s getting built that is turning the car into the most reliable driver; and there’s an ecosystem on knowing your preferences and who is using the car.”