Waymo presently has 600 specially modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid vans in its self driving fleet. That number is about to grow — a lot. The company announced on May 31 that it has ordered up to 62,000 more. That’s in addition to the 20,000 self-driving I-PACE electric SUVs it plans to buy from Jaguar. Those cars alone will be able to provided 1 million rides a day.
Chrysler takes an unconventional approach to naming its first-in-class plug-in van. Rather than highlighting the plug in the name with the word “Plug” or “Electric,” or even with “PHEV” tagged onto the end, the company seems to pretend it’s just a hybrid for some reason. If you go to the webpage for the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, though, you can see that the vehicle has 33 miles of electric range, was granted a highway fuel economy estimate of 84 MPGe from the EPA, and qualifies for the $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles. Why Chrysler doesn’t make it clear in the name that “this isn’t just any hybrid” is unclear, but it would probably be an interesting topic to investigate. Nonetheless, Waymo clearly knows what it’s getting into and what it wants.
“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,” says John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo. “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.”
According to Quartz, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 305,000 taxi, limousine, and ride-hailing vehicles in America. If Waymo takes delivery of all 82,600 self driving cars it has ordered, its cars will be more than a quarter of the existing fleet dedicated to moving people from place to place on demand. At the moment, though, there is no word on when all those cars are expected to be delivered and in operation.
Just where Waymo plans to use all those cars and what the cost of using them will be for customers is unclear, but it certainly is not waiting around for others to enter the autonomous ride-hailing service arena and gain an advantage in this emerging industry. It already has self-driving cars operating in the Phoenix metro area of Arizona and is experimenting with self-driving trucks in Atlanta.
Also unknown at this time is who will service all these vans and what plans Waymo has for creating an infrastructure to keep the batteries in all these Chrysler and Jaguar cars charged up. Quartz points out that Waymo has struck a deal with Avis to take care of its cars in the Phoenix area but that operation only involves a few hundred cars. Last fall, Waymo announced that AutoNation, America’s largest new car retailer, would also be involved in servicing its cars, but it is unknown who is going to tend to the needs of more than 80,000 vehicles.
According to a Tesla Motors Club post, Waymo is considering selling self-driving Chrysler-branded vehicles to individual customers at some point in the future. But before that happens, the public and regulators will need to be convinced that such cars are safe. A spate of crashes involving Teslas operating in Autopilot mode recently has raised some questions about whether today’s autonomous driving technology is as dependable and reliable as manufacturers claim it is. Perhaps Waymo, which makes extensive use of lidar sensors, will prove that self-driving cars are just as trustworthy as self-service elevators.
There is a lot of money at stake here. According to a report by the South China Morning Post, the mobility market in China alone will be worth $500 billion by 2030. Google kicked off its self-driving car program a decade ago with the idea of building its own cars. Then it decided to let others build the vehicles and concentrate on what it does best — computer software. Then it spun off its autonomous driving expertise into a separate division. Waymo may not be the most intuitive name ever — it does not conjure up a mental image of what it does the first time people hear it — but it may become just as generic as Kleenex or Scotch tape. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying on Waymo’s part.