Waymo, the self-driving vehicle unit of Google parent Alphabet, is expanding its relationship with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA). The automaker will provide Waymo with “thousands” of Chrysler Pacifica minivans to help Waymo expand its self-driving tests.
The first deliveries will start at the end of 2018. Both companies are being quiet about the exact number of minivans ordered, but Seeking Alpha reports the number will “consist of fewer than 10,000 minivans.”
The MSRP of the 2018 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan starts at $39,995. If the order is for one thousand minivans, for example, that would cost $40 million. A Chrysler Pacifica minivan can hold up to 8 passengers, which suites ride-hailing services.
Waymo lapping self-driving competition
So why is this important? Well, it simply re-affirms how far ahead of the competition Waymo is. Analysis of 2016 self-driving tests on public roads determined Waymo, at the time, was “5,000 times better than Uber at autonomous driving.” This was calculated by analyzing the number of “disengagements,” which is when a human driver needs to take over control of the automated vehicle.
At the time of the report, Uber experienced a disengagement once every mile driven – with a total of 20,354 miles autonomously driven. (Perhaps this is why many consumers are weary about self-driving cars.) By contrast, Waymo at the time experienced one disengagement every 5,128 miles autonomously driven.
Just yesterday, Drive.ai, a Mountainview, Calif.-based self-driving startup, released its first autonomous vehicle disengagement report. While it has showed improvement, Drive.ai is lightyears behind where Waymo was two years ago. For the reporting period from April 19, 2016 to November 30, 2017, Drive.ai’s fleet of seven self-driving vehicles drove 6,572 miles autonomously in Calif. and experienced 151 disengagements. That equals one disengagement/65.38 miles, which is way up from the company’s 2016 number of one disengagement/9.44 miles.
As Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a statement about expanding its fleet of autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans, “We’ve moved from research and development to operations and deployment. These additional vehicles will help us scale.”
This expansion certainly puts pressure on Uber, General Motors and others to speed up their self-driving vehicle development. Uber in late 2017 entered into an agreement with Volvo to purchase 24,000 of its XC90 SUVs between 2019-2021 to form a fleet of autonomous vehicles.
Earlier this month, GM announced it was seeking US government approval for a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel, brake pedal or gas pedal. GM said this car will enter its first commercial ride-sharing fleet in 2019.
Self-driving vehicles will be here sooner than you think
This partnership also indicates a strong relationship between Waymo and FCA – one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Waymo doesn’t want to be in the business of building cars, and FCA benefits by working well with a tech giant to design the minivans to easily accommodate self-driving technology.
“In order to move quickly and efficiently in autonomy, it is essential to partner with like-minded technology leaders,” said FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne in a statement. “Our partnership with Waymo continues to grow and strengthen; this represents the latest sign of our commitment to this technology.”
Waymo has already tested its self-driving minivans in 25 cities across the US. They are currently on the road in five main cities: Atlanta, Detroit, Kirkland (Wash.), Phoenix, and San Francisco.
The new minivans will be distributed to these different cities, but many of them are expected to end up in Chandler, Ariz., a suburb of Phoenix. Waymo has been testing self-driving minivans there since 2016, but in November 2017 it began testing minivans there without human drivers. The testing is currently limited to a small, geofenced area, but Waymo said the area will eventually expand and cover about 600 square miles.
Hello ATL! Metro Atlanta is the next stop for Waymo’s test program. Now that we have the world’s first fully self-driving vehicles on public roads in AZ, we’re looking to take our tech to more cities. pic.twitter.com/YFLvxkVMMd
— Waymo (@Waymo) January 22, 2018
Waymo announced last week on Twitter its testing in Atlanta. Waymo is already mapping the area to, essentially, have a 3D model of potential obstacles and traffic signals. Atlanta was chosen as a test city because it’s a major hub for transportation the US. It also has heavy traffic and a variety of weather conditions.
Google launched its self-driving car project nine years ago, so it certainly has had a head start on the competition. To date, the company’s self-driving cars have autonomously driven more than 4 million miles on public roads. And they’ve driven billions more in simulated environments. Waymo might not have flushed out its business model or have a full understanding of federal regulations surrounding self-driving vehicles, but it’s moving full speed ahead, leaving everyone else in the dust.