Waymo believes the future of its self-driving car technology depends on partnerships with automakers. The former Google self-driving car project previously teamed up with Chrysler and Jaguar. Now Waymo is partnering with the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance on projects in France and Japan — its first international foray.
“This is an ideal opportunity for Waymo to bring our autonomous technology to a global stage, with an innovative partner,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik wrote in a blog post. Waymo autonomous-car testing has been confined to the United States, but now the company will work with Renault and Nissan to deploy the tech in their respective home countries.
The announcement was light on details of how the partnership will work, but it appears to be taking a different form than Waymo’s previous automaker partnerships. Chrysler and Jaguar signed on to provide vehicles for Waymo to fit with its autonomous-driving hardware, for use in testing and the Waymo One ridesharing service. An Alliance press release made no mention of fitting, say, a Nissan Leaf or Renault Clio with Waymo tech. Instead, the two companies will jointly research “commercial, legal, and regulatory issues related to driverless transportation-as-a-service offerings in France and Japan,” according to the Alliance.
“Transportation-as-a-service” can mean anything from ridesharing, like the Waymo One service currently operating in the Phoenix metropolitan area, to delivery services and any other commercial uses companies can think of for autonomous vehicles. It’s generally expected that the first production self-driving cars will be used in services like these. Instead of putting an autonomous car in your driveway, you’ll likely hail one with a smartphone app.
Focusing on commercial services rather than retail sales has some advantages. It gives companies total control over how cars are used or maintained, ensuring careless owners won’t cause problems by pushing vehicles beyond their designed limits. Self-driving cars will need to rack up a clean safety record to build public trust, and strict stewardship will help ensure that by allowing companies to deploy cars only where the technology will work at its best. Ridesharing and delivery services could also provide new sources of revenue to automakers.
Regulations surrounding self-driving cars and the services that will likely use them are fairly vague, however, which explains Waymo and Renault-Nissan’s plan to conduct research first. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have experienced some pushback from regulators due to concerns over traffic congestion and complaints from taxi drivers about allegedly unfair competition. In addition to making sure self-driving cars are ready to take on the real world, companies must make sure the world is ready for them.
Renault and Nissan already have their own in-house self-driving car development programs. The two automakers are taking a gradual approach to the technology, starting with the deployment of Nissan’s ProPilot Assist driver-assist system in vehicles like the Altima and Rogue. ProPilot Assist marries adaptive cruise control with automated lane centering, but it’s far from true autonomous driving. However, Renault and Nissan plan to launch a system with a higher level of automation in 2020, followed by fully autonomous cars in 2022.
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