Transportation as a service, or TaaS as it is known colloquially, has been the main focus of Waymo, the self-driving spin off of Alphabet, the company formerly known as Google. Primarily, vehicles intended for Taas duty need to be easy for people to get in and out of. They don’t need blazing acceleration or knock your socks off styling. They don’t need 400 miles of range or the ability to recharge in 6.2 nanoseconds. They are basically horizontal elevators that provide safe, reliable transportation. And, if reports from Uber and Lyft drivers are to be believed, they have to be easy to clean!
3 1/2 years ago, Waymo signed up to purchase a fleet of 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica plug in hybrid vans that it planned to convert to autonomous operation. The company also said it was buying 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs that would be converted to autonomous driving as well. If you are wondering whatever happened to those projects, you’re not alone. Progress has been slower than the advent of high speed electric train service in California. On Waymo’s website today, you can read glowing reports about how people in Phoenix can hail a Waymo Pacifica van, but we’re pretty sure there aren’t 62,000 of them tooling around the Valley of the Sun.
Waymo is undeterred in its quest to bring autonomous ride-hailing service to the masses. Why is that? According to the South China Morning Post, the ride-hailing industry in China alone is estimated to be worth $500 billion a year by 2030. Waymo would love to get a large piece of that pie for itself. “We’re committed to expanding access to sustainable transportation, and deploying these fully autonomous, electric ride-hailing vehicles in the U.S. is an important step as we electrify our Waymo One fleet,” the company says.
In a blog post dated December 28, Waymo says it will integrate its Waymo Driver autonomous technology into a new mobility-focused, electric vehicle designed in Sweden specially for autonomous ride-hailing duties. Why Sweden? Because Geely owns Volvo, although the new autonomous vehicles will carry the Zeekr brand, one of many that Geely owns including Lynk & Co, the London EV Company, Lotus, Proton, and Polestar.
Here’s more from the Waymo blog post:
“Over years to come, we’ll integrate our Waymo Driver into the transportation-as-a-service (TaaS)-optimized Zeekr vehicle designed to prioritize the comfort, convenience, and preferences of Waymo One riders. This rider-first vehicle features a flat floor for more accessible entry, easy ingress and egress thanks to a B-pillarless design, low step-in height, generous head and legroom, and fully adjustable seats.
“While ensuring a level of safety consistent with U.S. federal vehicle standards – our Waymo One riders will one day experience an interior without steering wheel and pedals, and with plenty of headroom, leg room and reclining seats, screens and chargers within arm’s reach, and an easy to configure and comfortable vehicle cabin. We’ll begin to introduce these all electric, rider-first, fully autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads within our Waymo One fleet in the years to come.”
The Geely/Zeekr/Waymo people pod is the original Google car all growed up. Now to see if any of them ever take to the streets in America.
Geely is a company many have never heard of, despite the fact it sold more than 2.4 million vehicles last year. But if you live in the US, there may be a Geely in your future. As we reported recently, it has partnered with Renault to build vehicles in South Korea. That country has a free trade agreement with the United States which allows vehicles produced there to be imported to the US duty free.
The official announcement talks in general terms about hybrids and plug-in hybrids, but there may be more to the story. Geely has another brand in its corporate stable called Geometry. In September, Geely quietly announced the Geometry EX3, a diminutive 4-door battery-electric SUV it says will be priced starting for less than $10,000 in China.
Imagine, if you will, what might happen to the US EV market if that car made its way across the Pacific into American showrooms. Yes, it would cost more to get it here and make it conform to all applicable safety standards. So assume it would cost twice as much in the US. Do you think a low cost electric EV similar to a Kia Soul would find a market in America? Oh, yeah, you betcha.
This is pure speculation on our part, but the Chinese are particularly adept at playing the long game in a way that Western companies are not. First Zeekr autonomous people pods, then a low cost SUV type vehicle, followed by…who knows what? Meanwhile, some of you may be able to get a really good deal on an autonomous Pacifica plug-in hybrid van soon. Wonder what Waymo is planning to do with them all?