Forecasting the buzz at Consumer Electronics Show is always tricky. But a good bet for what will create certain buzz at next week's CES is whatever Ford Motor (F) and Alphabet's (GOOG) Google are willing to say about their driverless car project.
For the moment, the two companies won't even acknowledge that they're in talks. Nonetheless, the existence of such a project was reliably reported last week based on information from multiple sources and news organizations. Presumably, Ford is hoping to build a driverless car operated with Google software. A match made in virtual reality heaven.
That Ford and Google won't say anything about the collaboration suggests that an agreement isn't final and last-minute snags may remain. But if talks are concluded by early next week, the automaker and the technology company could use the giant and sprawling CES gathering, the world's most-attended annual showcase for technology, as an appropriate venue to disclose their plans.
According to sources, Ford and Google began talking "a few years ago" about driverless technology. Ford was building 50 or so specially-built Fusion sedans for Google to test when the latter put the project on hold after Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page visited Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.
Bill Ford Jr., the automaker's executive chairman and great grandson of the founder, has been outspoken in his determination to embrace emerging trends in personal transportation such as ride sharing, alternative-fuel vehicles and driverless technology. One theory of how driverless technology may unfold envisions a rapid transition to driverless cars that are leased by users rather than owned.
"Unless we figure out a very different urban transportation model, it's not gonna work," Bill Ford told Wired magazine. "If you think we're gonna shove two cars in every car in garage in Mumbai, you're crazy."
By contrast, Alan Mulally, whom Ford hired as chief executive in 2006 and who resigned in July 2014, was less than enthusiastic about Ford's internal development of driverless technology, the sources said. Mulally was succeeded as CEO by Mark Fields.
Mulally joined Google as a director the same month he left Ford. Google earlier this year hired a former Ford engineer, John Krafcik, to head its driverless car subsidiary. Ford has recently expanded its Silicon Valley laboratory to about 100 engineers.
Tesla (TSLA) , founded in 2003 and based in Palo Alto, Calif., is among the automakers that have been open and vigorous about pursuing driverless technology. The company recently offered wireless software upgrades to owners of its battery-powered Model S sedan, enabling functions such as automatic lane change.
Toyota Motor (TM) plans to introduce a new mapping system at CES that uses its cars to gather information that can be used as a way for driverless cars to navigate safely. Data centers will piece the information together to provide up-to-the moment accuracy about markings, construction, damage and other factors needed by vehicles.
But if Google and Ford are ready, and aim to make a splash, CES could serve as the perfect venue to reveal their plans for a driverless car.