Waymo, Google’s self-driving car, is preparing to significantly expand its operations. On Tuesday morning, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it had signed an agreement to supply Waymo with “thousands” of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. At first, Waymo was testing in California with bespoke R&D vehicles, but it switched to using Pacifica Hybrids in early 2017. Currently, Waymo operates a fleet of around 600 of these autonomous vehicles. ; these are mostly in the Phoenix area, although it is tested in a number of other locations including Michigan snow and Atlanta.
“With the world’s first fleet of fully self-driving cars on the way, we have moved from research and development, to operations and deployment,” said John Kraffik, CEO of Waymo. “The Pacifica Hybrid minivans offer a versatile interior and a comfortable ride experience, and the additional vehicles will help us.”
This report confirms that the race to field—as opposed to testing—“stage 4” autonomous vehicles (which will be geofenced) is between Waymo and General Motors.
A recent report from industry analysts Navigant identified those two systems as the current pack leaders in self-driving technology. Waymo was the first to deploy autonomous vehicles and put them to use giving people a ride in Phoenix, and our own Tim Lee took a ride in one at Waymo’s private test facility in California last October.
But GM has been busy too. He announced last November that he wants to start testing in Manhattan in 2018, certainly a difficult challenge for bus tunnels, truck and pedestrian traffic, unpredictable weather, and an unknown population. Be patient with other drivers. What’s more, earlier this year GM petitioned the US Department of Transportation to allow it to launch its new autonomous vehicle—based on the Chevrolet Bolt EV but called the Cruise AV—without any steering wheel or pedals. (The petition, if granted, would allow GM to build many more than the 2,500 vehicles currently allowed under DOT rules.)
Waymo’s Pacifica Hybrids will also keep the wheel and pedals in front of the driver’s seat, and we’re not sure exactly how many vehicles this order affects—the press release didn’t specify more than “thousands,” with deliveries starting by the end of the year 2018. The task of managing the fleet will fall to Avis, which signed a partnership with Waymo in 2017 to service and maintain the cars when they don’t hit the miles.