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Waymo expands self-driving vehicle testing, adds another 500 Chrysler Pacifica minivans ‒ report




Waymo has begun accepting online applications for its Early Rider self-driving technology testing programme, and has ordered another 500 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for the scheme.

IHS Markit Perspective:

  • Significance: Waymo has announced that it is beginning to accept applications to take part in the Early Rider testing programme of its self-driving technology. The real-world testing will occur in the Phoenix, Arizona, area. Additionally, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Waymo have jointly announced that FCA will supply Waymo with 500 more Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid test cars, outfitted with Waymo's self-driving technology.
  • Implications: Waymo is entering a next step in self-driving testing, bringing consumers directly into the picture, and is looking to gauge customer reaction to the service, as well as understand how they may use the vehicles. Initially, vehicles in the Early Rider programme will have safety drivers with them, although Waymo hopes to eliminate that step soon.
  • Outlook: This is the first self-driving testing by Waymo that provides access for everyday consumers; its 2.5 million miles of testing to date have been with safety drivers and engineers in the vehicles. The Early Rider programme will provide significant feedback on consumer expectations and reactions to real-world self-driving vehicles, information critical to developing these cars. The programme will also enable Waymo to expose a greater number of vehicle and transportation users to self-driving technology, which may eventually assist with commercial deployment. Waymo's order for new Pacifica Hybrids suggests that the integration has gone well to date.

Waymo has expanded its autonomous vehicle testing and is launching a pilot programme that makes self-driving vehicles available to families and urban commuters in the Phoenix, Arizona, United States, area. Waymo began limited testing in February, and began taking applications to take part in the Early Rider programme on 25 April. According to a Wall Street Journal article and a blog post by Waymo's top executive, John Krafcik, this is the first public testing of Waymo's technology. Waymo, which was formerly the Google self-driving car project, has logged more than 2.5 million miles of autonomous vehicle testing on city roads since 2009, the report states.

Waymo and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) have announced that Waymo will expand its initial fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans equipped with its self-driving technology. Waymo has contracted with FCA for another 500 units to its fleet. The Arizona Early Rider programme, according to Waymo's website, will use both the Pacifica minivan and Waymo's fleet of Lexus RX450h vehicles. The Lexus vehicles were modified by Waymo, while self-driving technology has been integrated into the Pacifica minivans by a joint team of FCA and Waymo engineers.

Waymo is accepting applications through its website from people who want to take part in the programme, although a start date for the programme is not clear. The Phoenix area testing will include the communities of Chandler, Tempe, Mesa, and Gilbert, Arizona, creating a testing area that is twice the size of the company's San Francisco, California, test area. A safety operator will be behind the wheel of each vehicle and users will summon the vehicles via a special smartphone app, at any time of day.

The Journal quotes the head of Waymo, John Krafcik, as saying the company wants to see how far people might go in replacing a personal vehicle. He said, "We're getting some sense… that if we can figure out a way to get this right it could be persuasive for folks deciding whether they should add a second or third car to their garages." A Bloomberg report quotes the executive as saying, "We're at the point when it's really important to find how real people, outside the Google environment, will use this technology. Our goal is that they will use this for all their transportation needs."

Waymo is looking for a diverse group of riders, including families and people working late shifts. These participants will not be charged for their rides, the Journal reports. "Rather than offer people one or two rides, the goal of this program is to give participants access to our fleet every day, at any time, to go anywhere within an area that's about twice the size of San Francisco… We'll learn things like where people want to go in a self-driving car, how they communicate with our vehicles, and what information and controls they want to see inside," Krafcik stated.

In a joint statement from FCA and Waymo on the additional vans, FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne said, "The collaboration between FCA and Waymo has been advantageous for both companies as we continue to work together to fully understand the steps needed to bring self-driving vehicles to market. The addition of 500 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans is a further acknowledgement of the hard work put forth by both engineering teams."

In the same press release, Krafcik said, "This collaboration is helping both companies learn how to bring self-driving cars to market, and realize the safety and mobility benefits of this technology."

Outlook and implications

This is the first self-driving test by Waymo that provides access to the technology to everyday consumers; its 2.5 million miles of testing to date have been with safety drivers and engineers in the vehicles. The Early Rider programme will provide significant feedback on consumer expectations and reactions to real-world self-driving vehicles, information critical to developing these cars. The programme will also enable Waymo to expose a greater number of vehicle and transportation users to self-driving technology, which may eventually assist with commercial deployment. Waymo's order for new Pacifica Hybrids suggests that the integration has gone well to date.

Waymo has been developing the technology since 2009, adding Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids to its fleet in January 2017. Uber and Volvo have been testing the technology with the public in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for several months, through Uber's ride-hailing app.

The selection of the area around Phoenix gives Waymo a large geographical area for its testing, as well as a population which may be open to the idea of self-driving, given that Arizona was one of the first states to allow such testing on public roads, but which is also a step away from Silicon Valley or Detroit. Both Detroit and San Francisco have populations tied to the industry, which might affect initial consumer reactions.

Waymo evolved from the Google self-driving car project and announced its new name in January 2017, when it also revealed the first Pacifica minivans outfitted by FCA with the company's self-driving technology and its sensor suite developed in-house. Waymo is far from the only company testing self-driving technology, but it does claim the most miles already tested, having begun its programme in 2009. According to reports submitted to the US State of California, required under that state's self-driving testing rules, Waymo's lead in testing manifests in fewer issues.

Although Waymo is sourcing minivans from FCA, it is not clear if FCA is participating in the testing process or what data is being shared. There were reports at the end of last year that Waymo and FCA would start a ride-hailing service together, but the automaker does not appear to be directly participating in Waymo's Early Rider programme or testing. The self-driving vehicle concept which FCA displayed at the 2017 CES expo did not include Waymo technology.

Waymo has, over time, indicated that it would like to work with several automakers and is not interested in building cars directly. Along with the FCA collaboration, Waymo has been reported to be in talks at different times with both Ford and Honda, although no announcements have followed. Most automakers are taking more independent strategies in developing the technology, using suppliers to address weaknesses in expertise rather than working with Waymo.

About this article

The above article is from IHS Automotive Same-Day Analysis of automotive news, events and trends, and is a deliverable of the World Markets Automotive Service. The service averages thirty stories per day and also provides competitor and country intelligence. Get a free trial.

About The Author

Ms. Stephanie Brinley is Senior Analyst-Americas, IHS Automotive, covering North and South America for the IHS World Markets Automotive service.

She is responsible for a daily update of news, events, interviews and product introduction summaries as well as special research reports and company profiles, providing context for and analysis of industry developments to worldwide subscribers. She joined IHS Automotive in summer 2013 with more than 20 years of experience in the automotive sector, including a decade in automotive analysis, four years' experience in supplier-based strategic communications and as a supplier-OEM marketing liaison, and several years on the editing side of a top automotive enthusiast publication in the United States. Ms. Brinley holds an a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Marketing from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich., and an MBA in Integrative Management from Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business, Lansing, Mich., US.