Waymo to buy 'thousands' of minivans for self-driving vehicle service

Eric D. Lawrence
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Waymo, founded as the self-driving car arm of Google, will buy "thousands" of additional Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans for its planned autonomous ride-hailing service.

The announcement Tuesday from minivan maker Fiat Chrysler appears to represent a massive boost in the scope of the development of self-driving cars, though it is short on specifics or a timetable.

But it comes in conjunction with Waymo's plans to launch the service in the Phoenix area this year — with no human attendant ready to take control of the vehicle in case of a snafu. The company, based in Mountain View, Calif., tweeted this month that Atlanta is the next city on its list.

Waymo had already ordered 600 Pacifica minivan with the additional minivans slated to be used as the company expands to other cities, according to Fiat Chrysler. The new minivan deliveries will start later this year.

Fiat Chrysler said the specific number of additional minivans will depend on Waymo's needs. Waymo indicated the number will be used to support the launch of its ride-hailing service but also declined to be specific. Details of the sale were not disclosed.

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News that Waymo wants additional minivans follows other recent announcements on the self-driving vehicle front from the Detroit Big 3 automakers. General Motors is seeking approval for Chevrolet Bolts without steering wheels. Ford plans to buy two start-ups to further its autonomous vehicle efforts.

The announcement of additional minivans follows Fiat Chrysler's pattern of partnering with other companies on self-driving vehicle development. The company is also involved in a partnership with BMW, Intel and sensor supplier Mobileye to develop an autonomous vehicle platform.

A Waymo minivan outfitted with self-driving sensors brakes suddenly for a black car that has backed out of a driveway without looking. The test was conducted at Waymo's testing facility in central California.

“In order to move quickly and efficiently in autonomy, it is essential to partner with like-minded technology leaders,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement. “Our partnership with Waymo continues to grow and strengthen; this represents the latest sign of our commitment to this technology.”

“With the world’s first fleet of fully self-driving vehicles on the road, we’ve moved from research and development to operations and deployment,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik said. “The Pacifica Hybrid minivans offer a versatile interior and a comfortable ride experience, and these additional vehicles will help us scale.”