Ford follows GM's Cruise move with self-driving spinoff

(Reuters) - Ford Motor Co F.N said on Tuesday it was creating a separate $4 billion unit to house its self-driving vehicle operations and is seeking outside investors, following a similar move in late May by Detroit rival General Motors Co GM.N with its Cruise Automation unit.

FILE PHOTO: The Ford logo is pictured on the company's stand during the 88th Geneva International Motor Show in Geneva, Switzerland, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

GM's spinoff of Cruise drew a $2.25-billion investment from SoftBank Group 9984.T, boosting GM's share price that day by 13 percent. SoftBank's 19.6-percent stake valued Cruise at $11.5 billion. GM paid an estimated $1 billion in 2016 to acquire the San Francisco-based self-driving startup.

“Ford has seemingly taken a step out of GM’s playbook to try to unlock value” from its self-driving business, said RBC Capital Markets analyst Joseph Spak.

In afternoon trade, Ford shares were up 0.9 percent to $10.56.

Despite the current flurry of development activity globally by dozens of established and startup companies, Ford senior management believes that market for self-driving vehicles eventually will consolidate around three or four major players, “and they want to be in the mix,” according to a source familiar with Ford’s thinking.

Ford has had previous discussions with potential investors, the source said, but the nature and depth of those discussions is unclear.

A Ford spokesperson declined to confirm whether the automaker has had discussions with SoftBank regarding a potential investment in Ford’s self-driving operations.

On Tuesday, Ford said it would invest $4 billion through 2023 in its newly formed Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, including the $1 billion it previously had earmarked for Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving startup that Ford acquired in 2017.

The new unit, to be headed by Vice President Sherif Marakby and based at Ford’s new Corktown campus in Detroit, will house self-driving vehicle research, engineering and systems integration, as well as business strategy and development for the automaker’s future self-driving vehicle fleet.

Ford said it hoped to accelerate business opportunities with the creation of the new unit, which it said is “structured to take on third-party investment.”

GM Cruise and Alphabet Inc's GOOGL.O Waymo are often described as leading the pack of technology and auto companies competing to create self-driving cars and integrate them into ride services fleets.

Alphabet plans to launch a self-driving ride service later this year, while GM Cruise has targeted the introduction of a similar service in 2019. Ford has said it expects to put self-driving vehicles into commercial service by 2021.

Reporting by Arunima Banerjee in Bengaluru, Paul Lienert in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Supriya Kurane, Frances Kerry and Susan Thomas