Waymo has signed an agreement to work with Renault and Nissan on issues surrounding self-driving car technology, the companies said Thursday. The partnership, which the companies call a “first step,” doesn’t currently include immediate plans to launch Waymo self-driving vehicles in France or Japan. Instead, the companies will work together to “research commercial, legal and regulatory issues related to driverless transportation-as-a-service offerings in France and Japan,” according to a joint press release.
What exactly does that mean? Clearly, Waymo brings the tech expertise, and Renault and Nissan bring the manufacturing know-how, plus some insider knowledge about local laws and politics. Both want to figure out how to one day turn autonomous vehicles into a viable, money-making business. But like most self-driving vehicle partnerships—and particularly those involving involving Waymo, Alphabet’s autonomous vehicle tech company—the whole thing is still a bit mysterious.
For one, the companies call the agreement “exclusive,” but each has plenty of other robot tech work going on. Nissan has its own semi-automated driver-assistance feature called ProPilot Assist and is working internally to put autonomous vehicles on public roads by 2020. Renault is part of a multi-organization French autonomous lab project, which is experimenting with self-driving vehicles. Waymo, meanwhile, uses custom-made Fiat Chrysler and Jaguar Land Rover vehicles to test its driverless software in the US. A Waymo spokesperson said the exclusivity in this new deal pertains to territory, which would appear to bar Waymo from working with any other companies in France or Japan, at least for now.
In Thursday’s announcement, Nissan and Renault said they plan to create joint venture companies in France and Japan dedicated to robotic vehicle development, although the longevity of the three-way partnership is unclear. It will exist for what the parties are calling “an initial period,” which indicates it has an end date. Spokespeople for Waymo and Renault declined to say when that might be.
The Waymo spokesperson also called the agreement “a first step, [and] an initial piece of the partnership,” seeming to suggest that it might expand in the future—perhaps by Waymo deploying self-driving tech on Nissan and Renault cars in Japan and France, or perhaps even beyond those countries’ borders.
A spokesperson from Nissan did not respond to a request for comment.
As in the US, there are plenty of regulatory, legal, and commercial issues to be ironed out by autonomous vehicle developers in other countries. The Japanese government has said it wants self-driving vehicles in the country by 2020, in time for the Tokyo Olympics, and the Japanese Diet amended some of its road laws last month to allow vehicles with some automated features to operate in a limited capacity on some roads. The French government has said it wants self-driving tech by 2020 or 2022, and legislation to allow some autonomous vehicles in the country is currently in the works.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
Of course, laws are only one part of the robot car challenge. Technology experts have pointed out that deploying self-driving vehicles in any new place will take some work. It’s hard enough to teach a machine to understand nuanced aspects of human behavior, like the friendly wave one driver might give another to motion that, yes, sure, you can cut in front of me right now. But teaching an autonomous system to handle the subtleties of each culture’s specific driving mannerisms is even harder.
“In Pittsburgh, for example, we have something called a Pittsburgh left turn, and that’s the local culture,” Raj Rajkumar, who studies autonomous vehicle technology at Carnegie Mellon, told WIRED in 2017, when Waymo began to test its vehicles in Michigan snow. “Boston has a driving culture where people double-park willy-nilly. Autonomous vehicles need to be taught to deal with all these situations.”
If nothing else, Thursday’s announcement is a sign that one of the nascent self-driving industry’s most notable trends—making and breaking big international partnerships—is going strong. Last month, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles scuttled a proposed merger with the Renault-Nissan Alliance. Then the Italian-American automaker said it would work with the self-driving startup Aurora on autonomous vehicles. Last week, Aurora also said it was working with Hyundai and Kia, and that it had pressed pause on its work with Volkswagen. Toyota is working with Uber. BMW and Daimler are collaborating on mobility efforts. Volkswagen may be about to sign a deal with Ford and the American carmaker’s close self-driving partner ArgoAI.
“We’re in the consolidation phase,” Ford Autonomous Vehicles CEO Sherif Marakby told WIRED in an interview last week. May the company that learns how to say “Sign on the dotted line” in the most languages win.