AV Arms Race: Waymo Will Add 62k Self-Driving Minivans to Ride-Hailing Fleet This Year

The company, spun out of Google, will multiply its driverless fleet size with Chrysler Pacificas.

by Benjamin Raven, MLive.com / June 1, 2018
Courtesy Waymo (Facebook)

(TNS) — Waymo, the Google-originated self-driving car project, is expanding its partnership with Fiat Chrysler with the announcement it will add another 62,000 Pacifica minivans to its autonomous fleet later this year.

FCA announced the second expansion with Waymo of the year in a Thursday, May 31 news release. Back in January of this year, the two were a little vaguer in saying that FCA would add "thousands" of Pacificas to Waymo's fleet of 600, at the time. Waymo has been busy adding vehicles to the fleet, as the now standalone company took a luxurious turn with the addition of 20,000 Jaguar I-PACEs to its fleet.

"FCA is committed to bringing self-driving technology to our customers in manner that is safe, efficient and realistic," FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said in the release.

"Strategic partnerships, such as the one we have with Waymo, will help to drive innovative technology to the forefront."

FCA was the first automaker to directly work with then-Google's self-driving car project in 2016 when it designed and engineered 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids. The minivans doubled Waymo's fleet at the time, and were built with Google's software at the automaker's Windsor, Ontario, Canada-based plant.

The massive increase in Pacifica Hybrid minivans will aim to further Waymo's goal of launching the world's first self-driving, ride-hailing service. The self-driving car company has already tested its technology in 25 U.S. cities and at least six states.

"FCA and Waymo are no strangers to each other, and this announcement shows the partnership is working," Akshay Anand, Kelley Blue Book analyst, said in an emailed statement.

"We are seeing a continued ramping of investment in self-driving cars, and even with incidents in recent news, companies across industries still want to stake their claim in the transportation mode of the future."

In Michigan, Waymo started testing the autonomous minivans on roads in Novi, in late 2017. The testing in Michigan marked new territory for Waymo as the company was looking to test its software on the state's unpredictable winter roads and the cold weather experience.

At the time Waymo CEO John Krafcik said of adding Michigan to the fold, that the "Pacifica minivans are our most advanced self-driving vehicles to date, and testing in snow, sleet and ice will help further hone our driving capabilities."

"Waymo's goal from day one has been to build the world's most experienced driver and give people access to self-driving technology that will make our roads safer," Krafcik said on Thursday.

"We're excited to deepen our relationship with FCA that will support the launch of our driverless service, and explore future products that support Waymo's mission."

This addition certainly adds optimism to what Waymo is trying to accomplish as it comes on the heels of the company becoming the first to test its vehicles on public roads with no human back-up in the driver's seat. This test occurred in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, Arizona in October 2017.

The vehicle used in this historic test, and the thousands more coming to Waymo, were developed in Novi and manufactured in Windsor, Ontario. As for the Pacifica itself, it became the first vehicle to be graded as Level 4 autonomy by the Society of Automotive Engineers.

In a previously published safety report, Waymo details the procedures behind each of its different tests for its technology. On public roads, like they will be testing starting in the Detroit area soon, each Pacifica Hybrid will have a "highly-trained" driver inside.

"Waymo continues to leverage its partnerships with traditional automakers. Expanding from 600 to 62,000 Chrysler minivans, in addition to its recent 20,000-vehicle commitment with Jaguar Land Rover, confirms Waymo's desire to be the technology behind self-driving cars rather than playing the role of car manufacturer," Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said in an emailed statement.

"It's a good move that gives the tech giant more flexibility while maintaining the profit margin that built its parent company."

This announcement comes on the same day, Thursday, May 31, in which General Motors announced a $3.35 billion expansion into its Cruise unit for a 19.6 percent equity stake. Japanese firm SoftBank Vision Fund chipped in $2.25 billion and GM spent $1.1 billion of its own to speed up the commercialization of its autonomous division.

GM CEO Mary Barra said that this partnership adds yet another "strong partner as we pursue our vision of zero crashes, zero emissions and zero congestion."

With this infusion of nearly $3.5 billion, GM says this will help its Cruise unit reach commercialization by 2019.

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