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Waymo and Jaguar will build up to 20,000 self-driving electric SUVs

Jaguar I-Pace will be the second official vehicle in Waymo’s robot taxi fleet

Waymo and Jaguar Land Rover have inked a deal that will add tens of thousands of all-electric I-Pace SUVs to the Alphabet unit’s growing lineup of self-driving taxis. The I-Pace, which made its global debut earlier this month, is not as much of a people-mover as Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans, but it will serve as a more high-end ride for those willing to pay a premium for their driverless transportation.

The first prototype I-Pace with Waymo’s self-driving technology will hit the road for public testing at the end of 2018, and officially become part of Waymo’s commercial ride-hailing service starting in 2020. Waymo and Jaguar Land Rover’s engineers will work in tandem to build these cars to be self-driving from the start, rather than retrofitting them after they come off the assembly line. Long-term, the companies say they plan to build up to 20,000 vehicles in the first two years of production, with the goal of serving a potential 1 million trips a day. It’s unclear how much money would be trading hands under the deal.

Waymo currently has around 600 Chrysler Pacifica minivans in its fleet, some of which are used to shuttle real people around for its Early Rider program in Arizona. The minivans are plug-in hybrid variants with Waymo’s self-driving hardware and software built in. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Waymo co-staff a facility in Michigan, near FCA’s US headquarters, to engineer the vehicles. The company also owns a fleet of prototype self-driving Lexus RX SUVs that are being phased out in favor of the minivans. (The egg-shaped “Firefly” prototypes were also phased out last year.)

Last November, Waymo began test-driving its minivans on public roads in Phoenix without a human driver at the wheel. In recent weeks, it began inviting its Early Rider members into these fully driverless vehicles for ride-hailing trips.

As it begins to build out a commercial ride-hailing fleet, Waymo has selected a more high-performing, high-end companion to the more utilitarian Pacifica. When it debuted in Geneva in early March, the Jaguar I-Pace immediately drew comparisons to Tesla’s Model X, with its roomy interior, luxury accents, and impressive-sounding range and horsepower. The British automaker certainly helped fuel this analogy by pricing the I-Pace at $69,500 — $10,000 less than the Model X 75D and $5,000 less than the entry-level Model S.

The addition of the I-Pace to Waymo’s fleet also can be seen as a challenge to GM’s Cruise, which is currently testing hundreds of self-driving electric Chevrolet Bolts in San Francisco and Arizona with the aim of launching a commercial taxi service in 2019. For GM, the future is both autonomous and electric, and nothing else. But competitors like Ford have shied away from such absolutism by embracing hybrid vehicles as part of its autonomous strategy. By 2020, Waymo will have both plug-in hybrid Pacificas and battery-electric I-Paces filling out its fleet.

It’s unclear which city will be the first to get the self-driving electric utilities. Waymo plans to launch its fully driverless commercial ride-hailing service in Phoenix later this year. And it has test vehicles on the road today in Michigan, San Francisco, Washington state, and Atlanta. Waymo CEO John Krafcik has said the company will announce its second commercial market later this year. And a partnership with JLR would certainly seem to add the UK into the mix as a potential market.

JLR is no stranger to self-driving partnerships. The automaker has been testing its autonomous research vehicles on a 44-mile stretch near its headquarters in Coventry. Last summer, JLR invested $25 million in Lyft to support the ride-hail company’s autonomous and connected vehicle activities. Under the deal, JLR will test its autonomous vehicles on Lyft’s platform. (Waymo also has a separate partnership with Lyft.)

That said, it’s a time of high anxiety for the nascent self-driving car industry. A fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, last Sunday marked the first fatality involving an autonomous car in the US. In response, Uber temporarily halted its self-driving testing, while the governor of Arizona suspended the ride-hailing company from further testing in the state. Police in Tempe and the US National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the incident.

Speaking at a dealer association conference last week, Waymo’s Krafcik said that his company’s self-driving cars would have handled the incident differently, strongly hinting that 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg would still be alive if she had crossed in front of a Waymo car rather than an Uber. The two companies settled a contentious trade dispute earlier this year arising from accusations that the former head of Uber’s self-driving program had stolen vast amounts of proprietary data from Waymo. The settlement included Waymo receiving $245 million in equity from Uber.

With another major OEM in its corner, Waymo is clearly trying to project an aura of momentum, even as the wider industry grapples with the meaning of the fatal Uber crash. Some automakers, like Toyota, have paused their public self-driving tests. But for Waymo, it's forward all the way as it seeks to maintain its position as a leader in this potentially lucrative market.

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