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PARIS/FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Alarmed by the threat posed by Silicon Valley firms developing autonomous driving systems, carmakers at this week's Paris Motor Show showed signs they are ready to hit back by cooperating in areas where they might have been expected to compete.
"This is how the automotive industry may be able to fight off the threat that Apple (AAPL.O) and particularly Google (GOOGL.O) represent to their brands as digital services become more and more important," technology investment analyst Richard Windsor said.
BMW (BMWG.DE), Daimler (DAIGn.DE) and VW's (VOWG_p.DE) Audi announced this week they would launch new traffic monitoring services next year which give drivers a view of road conditions miles ahead. They are based on video data collected from sensors in other cars and fed to the three carmakers' jointly-owned navigation mapping services firm HERE (reut.rs/2dabC1B).
Also General Motors (GM.N), Nissan (7201.T) and VW are experimenting with a plan to pull video data captured by their customers' vehicles using Israeli firm Mobileye's (MBLY.N) camera-based sensor systems, that may soon give automakers an edge over the likes of Google in the precision-mapping required for driverless cars (reut.rs/2daj3Wr).
However, it remains to be seen whether carmakers can charge premium prices for connected car services as technology companies like Google look to develop similar offerings for free, supported by advertising or other business models.
A deal by traffic data start-up Inrix to supply data to Google-owned crowd-sourced traffic and navigation service Waze will help drivers find parking spots on smartphones using the free app. And Renault (RENA.PA) said on Thursday it was showing a prototype of a Waze system built into its car dashboards which run Android Auto, Google's operating system for carmakers.
Meanwhile connecting cars on the move with the Internet also needs more reliable mobile telecoms networks. With that aim, Germany's top automakers said this week they were teaming up with telecoms network equipment makers Ericsson (ERICb.ST), Huawei [HWT.UL], Nokia (NOKIA.HE), Qualcomm (QCOM.O) and Intel (INTC.O) to help with developing the next-generation 5G networks set to debut around 2020 (reut.rs/2dcPuCy).
At the same time carmakers are now racing to plot their courses to building self-driving vehicles over the next five years, a dramatic acceleration in pace from the 10- to 15-year timeframes many had charted until pushed to speed up the process by the advances made by Google and Tesla (TSLA.O).
"We see the car transforming from a product into the ultimate platform," Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche told reporters in Paris.
Among the car companies there have been two camps, those who are trying to develop their autonomous driving technology in-house, and those who are outsourcing it, but that division is looking set to become less clear-cut due to the need for cooperation in some areas at least.
"Gradually all of the car manufacturers will have to get more and more involved in managing data. It's natural. We're going to have to work much more collaboratively," Stewart Callegari, a Nissan product planning executive for driverless cars told reporters at the Paris show.
Fiat's recent partnership to build self-driving vans with Google is seen by analysts as an example of outsourcing, given the Italian auto maker's weak finances, limiting its ability to invest in its own software expertise (reut.rs/1ZatE2c).
Daimler, on the other hand, is firmly in the camp of vehicle makers who want to go it alone but still sees some need for collaboration.
"We need to think whether we work together analyzing the data or whether we do this on our own. This depends on the use case," Zetsche said, adding that it made sense to work together in areas where potential cost savings resulted but did not blur the distinctions between brands.
Some partnerships like the deal between Chinese carmaker Geely's (0175.HK) Swedish subsidiary Volvo Car Group to develop autonomous cars with Uber Technologies [UBER.UL], and General Motor's partnership with Uber's rival Lyft, are also seen as hybrid approaches.
"The automotive industry has and will continue to become a software business in many ways," Audi of America President Scott Keogh told Reuters.
Reporting by Gilles Guillaume, Andreas Cremer and Laurence Frost in Paris; Editing by Greg Mahlich