We thought Google was going to lead the charge into the autonomous driving future with the cute little 2 seater it started testing in and around Silicon Valley a few years back. But a funny thing happened on the way to the future. Google became Alphabet and the self-driving division became Waymo. Somebody in the company must have realized that adding autonomous technology to an existing car was a much smarter idea, and perhaps that more space was needed.
Car companies build cars. It’s what they do. Waymo is not a car company. Ergo, it shouldn’t be in the business of building cars. That’s where serendipity came into play. In 2016, Chrysler unveiled a plug-in hybrid version of its newest Pacifica minivan. With room for up to 8 passengers, it was the ideal candidate for a ride-hailing and/or ridesharing service. Waymo and Chrysler inked a deal. Waymo would provide the technology and Chrysler would build it into the Pacifica.
The arrangement began with 100 specially modified cars. By the end of 2017, that number had grown to 600 vehicles. Many of them are now part of Waymo’s Early Rider Program in the Phoenix area. Starting last year, local residents have been eligible for free rides in one of the specially equipped Pacificas. Although there was a human driver on board, the cars essentially drove themselves in an area twice as large as San Francisco. The driver was there just in case a situation arose that the computer system couldn’t handle.
In November, Waymo eliminated the human observer from the equation, according to The Verge. Now Waymo says it has ordered “thousands” more of the modified Pacificas. They will become part of self-driving fleets in “multiple US cities,” according to a report in TechCrunch. Five of the most likely locations are Atlanta, San Francisco, Detroit, Phoenix, and Kirkland, Washington.
Sergio Marchionne, the mercurial head of Fiat Chrysler who once begged people not to buy his electric cars, said this week, “In order to move quickly and efficiently in autonomy, it is essential to partner with like-minded technology leaders. Our partnership with Waymo continues to grow and strengthen. This represents the latest sign of our commitment to this technology.” Sounds like a nice PR statement rather than admission of an existential crisis like this was.
Neither company has said publicly how many cars are involved in the new order but the first of them are expected to be delivered later this year.
The partnership between Waymo and Chrysler is like an “open marriage.” Both companies are free to work with others if they see fit. Fiat Chrysler, in fact, is also party to another autonomous vehicle working group, this one consisting of FCA, BMW, Intel, and Mobileye.
The new order for autonomous Pacificas will be good for Chrysler’s bottom line. At a minimum starting price of $39,995, 2500 vehicles would mean $100 million in new business. It also can’t hurt Chrysler in its attempt to acquaint the general public with its plug-in hybrid minivan, the first and so far only vehicle of its kind in the US market. Maybe Marchionne will come around and see plug-in vehicles as a blessing rather than a curse someday.