Google and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles confirmed a partnership Tuesday in which the two companies will collaborate on creating autonomous minivans.
The two companies will work together to build and test approximately 100 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans, and they first of the bunch could hit the road by the end of the year. This marks the first time Google has worked with a traditional automaker in designing a self-driving car since the start of its autonomous project in 2009.
"FCA will design the minivans so it's easy for us to install our self-driving systems, including the computers that hold our self-driving software and the sensors that enable our software to see what's on the road around the vehicle," Google said in a written statement. "The minivan design also gives us an opportunity to test a larger vehicle that could be easier for passengers to enter and exit, particularly with features like hands-free sliding doors."
That could be particularly important if Google and FCA intend to launch the autonomous minivans as a competitor to traditional public transportation options. Chris Urmson, the director of Google's self-driving car project, indicated that may be a potential business model during a public meeting on autonomous operations last week.
"Those of us in the tech industry recognize how hard it is to build cars." – Jennifer Haroon.
"Public transit executives could be buying autonomous minivans rather than expensive buses," he said. "Federal standards determine what kinds of vehicles cities can use for transit. This needs attention."
In the Pacifica, Google's engineers get an all-new minivan. Chrysler showcased the vehicle for the first time in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and sales of the non-hybrid versions of the vans went on sale last month.
FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne says further collaboration between his company and Google is possible. "This first phase of the operation is very targeted. It's designed to take Google technology into the minivan. It's very, very focused," he said, according to Automotive News.
The collaboration won't be Google's first experience with hybrids. The Lexus RX 450h SUV is one of the two cars in its current test fleet, which consists of approximately 70 vehicles. With roughly 100 autonomous minivans slated to be part of the collaboration, Google's test fleet will more than double. The autonomous minivans will be tested on a private track before being driven on public roads, a Google spokesperson says.
Both companies indicated Tuesday they intend to pursue fully autonomous minivans, meaning vehicles that require no human intervention from the start of a journey to the end. In general, Google has lobbied both California and federal regulators to remove requirements that require steering wheels and brake pedals from autonomous cars. Thus far, those efforts have been rebuffed. But both federal and state authorities are reviewing their rules and regulations on autonomous operations. It's unclear Tuesday whether, over the long term, the autonomous Pacifica fleet would get such a significant makeover.
Financial terms in the collaboration were not disclosed.
In many ways, the two companies are the right match for a partnership. Google has signaled its willingness to partner with an established automaker over the past year as it began exploring the commercial aspects of its self-driving technology. Chrysler, meanwhile, hasn't made any significant investments in autonomous vehicles or the broader future of mobility. But John Krafcik, CEO of Google's self-driving project and auto-industry veteran (pictured above), thought the minivan was well-suited for the next steps of autonomous driving.
"FCA has a nimble and experienced engineering team," he said Tuesday in a written statement. "The opportunity to work closely with FCA engineers will accelerate our efforts to develop a fully self-driving car that will make our roads safer and everyday destinations within reach for those who cannot drive."
Google says Tuesday's announcement of a collaboration with FCA doesn't necessarily rule out future partnerships with others. Once viewed strictly as competitors, Tuesday's announcement is as much an indication Detroit and Silicon Valley are collaborators in the autonomous era.
"Those of us in the tech industry recognize how hard it is to build cars," Jennifer Haroon, director of business development for Google's self-driving car project, said at a conference in March. "We feel like Google isn't the manufacturer of cars, and we have said we're looking for partners to bring the next generation of self-driving cars to the market."