The size of Waymo’s fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans just got radically bigger. The Alphabet unit announced today that it struck a deal with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), one of Detroit’s Big Three automakers, for an additional 62,000 minivans to be deployed as robot taxis. Moreover, the two companies have also begun discussions about how to eventually sell self-driving cars to customers as personally owned vehicles.
Selling cars with Waymo’s self-driving technology at Fiat Chrysler dealerships would be a dramatic escalation in Waymo’s plan to bring driverless cars to the masses. To date, the company has spoken only vaguely about licensing its self-driving hardware and software to automakers. Today’s confirmation of negotiations with FCA is the first indication that you may be able to own a self-driving car built by Waymo.
But that is probably years away from happening. In the meantime, the news that Waymo is buying up to 62,000 additional minivans is certainly stunning in its own right. That number includes the “thousands” of Chrysler Pacificas that FCA said in January it would begin delivering to Waymo by the end of the year.
Waymo is widely seen as having the most advanced self-driving stack in the industry, with traditional automakers like GM and Ford nipping at its heels. The company currently has around 600 minivans in its fleet, some of which are used to shuttle people around for its Early Rider program in Phoenix, Arizona; others are being tested in states like California, Washington, Michigan, and Georgia. The first 100 minivans were delivered when the partnership was announced in May 2016, and an additional 500 were delivered in 2017.
Last November, Waymo began test-driving its minivans on public roads in Phoenix without a human driver at the wheel. Soon after, it began inviting its Early Rider members into these fully driverless vehicles for test trips in preparation for the launch of a fully driverless commercial taxi service in Arizona later this year.
Neither Waymo nor FCA would disclose the amount of money that was trading hands. The manufacturer’s suggested retail price for the 2018 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan starts at $39,995. So unless FCA is giving Waymo a bulk discount of some kind — which seems likely — this deal could be worth well over $1 billion.
The minivans are plug-in hybrid variants with Waymo’s self-driving hardware and software built in. The companies co-staff a facility in Michigan, near FCA’s US headquarters, to engineer the vehicles. Waymo also owns a fleet of self-driving Lexus RX SUVs that it has been phasing out in favor of the new minivans. (The egg-shaped “Firefly” prototypes were also phased out last year.)
The deal between Waymo and FCA is non-exclusive, but it’s a sign that both Waymo and FCA are happy enough to continue working with each other. The Pacifica satisfies Waymo’s need for a vehicle that can be used to move a good number of people at once. (The Pacifica can hold up to eight passengers.) And FCA gets to look good standing next to one of the world’s biggest tech giants with some of the best self-driving technology around. FCA is also a member of a self-driving technology partnership with BMW, Intel, and Mobileye.
In March, Waymo announced a partnership with Jaguar Land Rover that will result in the addition of up to 20,000 all-electric Jaguar I-Pace SUVs to Waymo’s fleet. 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 has been in talks with Honda since late 2016 when the company was still housed within Google. Rather than moving people, the partnership with Honda will focus on delivering goods. Waymo has said the four pillars of its commercial business will be ride-hailing, logistics, helping connect people to public transportation, and supplying its autonomous technology to automakers for personally owned vehicles.
The announcement came on the heels of news that Japan’s SoftBank would be investing $2.25 billion in General Motors’ self-driving Cruise division. The money is intended to help speed GM’s plans to launch its own commercial taxi service in 2019.
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, in March marked the first fatality involving an autonomous car in the US. Several crashes involving Tesla vehicles using the semi-autonomous Autopilot systems — one fatal — have also dominated headlines in recent weeks. And public opinion toward self-driving cars is trending down, with more people reporting they would be too fearful to ride in a driverless vehicle.
It will be a challenge for Waymo, GM, and others to convince people that safety is of utmost importance, especially as more and more autonomous vehicles begin to hit the road.