After six months of engineering collaboration, automaker FCA and Waymo (the new name for Google's self-driving car project) have introduced a new fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans that will soon be on the road in Waymo's test markets in California, Washington, Texas and Arizona.
The vehicles aren't nearly as awkward-looking as other self-driving cars you might have seen in photographs (or maybe even in person in certain cities). Instead of a large spinning radar system on the roof, these vans have what could almost pass for an ordinary cargo carrier you'd bolt on the roof for a summer road trip. But instead of skateboards or duffel bags, it stores Waymo's self-driving technology, including a suite of sensors, telematics and other systems. On top is a relatively small, gumball-shaped dome that houses the spinning LIDAR and 360-degree cameras. The brains of the system -- Waymo's purpose-built computer system -- resides behind the third-row seat.
There are a few odd-shaped gizmos bolted here and there on the outside, containing additional cameras and sensors. But Chrysler did a pretty good job incorporating Waymo's technology into its vans without making them look like complete freaks. By the time fully autonomous cars are mainstream, most of these sensors probably won't be visible at all.
The two companies have been developing the vehicles at a facility near Detroit since May 2016. The deal is important for FCA, which - unlike most other major automakers - hasn't been developing autonomous driving technology of its own. Waymo, in turn, wants to refine its self-driving technology on different types of vehicles and needs the robust electrical architecture of a hybrid like the Pacifica.
Besides, a minivan is the ideal vehicle to lead the way toward full autonomy (and not because Mommy can go back to bed while the minivan schleps the kids to school.)
Minivans are the perfect people-movers for geo-fenced areas like congested cities or campuses where fully self-driving vehicles make the most sense and where they will likely be deployed first. Driverless shuttles are an efficient way, for example, to transport employees around a sprawling corporate campus or to help commuters get from the train station to a nearby office tower.
Indeed, Waymo reportedly plans to start a ride-sharing service with Chrysler’s minivans as part of its shift from the laboratory to a commercial enterprise, according to a recent Bloomberg report. Waymo will deploy a semi-autonomous version of the Pacifica for the new service as early as the end of 2017, Bloomberg reported, citing unnamed sources.
Next month in Las Vegas, FCA plans to introduce a fully electric version of the Pacifica at CES, the big consumer electronics show. If I had to guess, those minivan EVs will eventually turn up in Waymo's car-sharing fleet.