In a major expansion of its self-driving car fleet, Waymo will take delivery of “thousands” of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, according to a Chrysler press release. Waymo already has 600 of the minivans, but is bulking up the fleet ahead of its planned launch of an autonomous ridesharing service. Deliveries will begin later this year.
Waymo plans to launch its ridesharing service in Phoenix later this year, and then expand to other U.S. cities. The former Google self-driving car project already offers rides to members of the public on a limited basis in Arizona, and has tested autonomous cars without a human driver behind the wheel in the state.
Before it was spun off from Google, Waymo used a variety of modified Toyota and Lexus hybrids, then switched to custom-built “Firefly” electric cars. But Waymo retired the last of the pod-like electric cars last year, opting to standardize its fleet around the Pacifica. Waymo received its first 100 Pacificas in 2016, and took delivery of 500 more in 2017.
All Waymo vehicles are the Pacifica Hybrid model. Despite the confusing name, these minivans are actually plug-in hybrids, with 33 miles of all-electric range from the factory, and the ability to charge their battery packs from an external power source. The plug-in hybrid Pacifica can provide more electric power than a standard vehicle, which is perfect for powering computers, sensors, and other autonomous-driving hardware. That was likely a factor in Waymo’s choice, although CEO John Krafcik also cited the Pacifica’s “versatile interior” and “comfortable ride experience” in a statement.
Chrysler and Waymo declined to say exactly how many minivans will be included in this latest order. It’s worth noting that Waymo rival Uber has placed an order for 24,000 Volvo XC90 SUVs in order to scale up its own autonomous ridesharing service. General Motors plans to launch an autonomous ride-sharing service in 2019, and is already building autonomous Chevrolet Bolt EV electric cars on the same assembly line as the standard Bolt EV.
Collaborations like the one between Waymo and Chrysler will likely become the model for tech companies developing self-driving cars. Car manufacturing is en expensive and complicated business, one Waymo, Uber, and other tech companies have no experience with. It makes sense to simply buy cars from an existing manufacturer. But with automakers developing their own autonomous-driving tech, that strategy could also leave Waymo and other vulnerable in the future. What happens if automakers decide to build and operate their own fully autonomous cars for ridesharing purposes?
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