The self-driving car startup Waymo began its life as a tiny experimental project inside Google X, the search giant’s “moonshot” department. As part of the reorganization several years ago, the self-driving car company became its own entity under the Alphabet corporate umbrella. Waymo rolled out a new fleet of autonomous minivans shortly after its formation, and now it’s acquiring a whole lot more. The company is reportedly buying several thousand new vehicles from Fiat Chrysler.
Waymo’s self-driving vans are built on the standard Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan, but they include a collection of sensors and control mechanisms that don’t exist in the minivans you can buy from the dealer. The combination of visible light cameras, radar, and lidar allow the car to detect obstacles and stay on the road. The vans also run custom Waymo software that can take the vehicle from point A to point B without human interaction.
Fiat Chrysler declined to specify the actual number of vans sold to Waymo in this deal, saying only that it’s in the “thousands.” A stock Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivan, which can carry up to eight passengers, runs $40,000, but we can safely assume Waymo is getting a discount buying so many units at once. However, there’s also the added cost of all the sensors and automation hardware for each vehicle. When all the receipts are tallied, Waymo has surely just dropped tens of millions to expand its fleet.
Waymo started with just 100 self-driving minivans in May of 2016, but it took delivery of 500 more last year. So, this deal will increase the size of Waymo’s fleet several times over if we’re talking about “thousands” of new vehicles. Thus far, Waymo has used its self-driving vehicles for testing, as well as the Early Rider program in Arizona. As part of that program, Waymo recently started ferrying people around without a safety driver behind the wheel. In most places, Waymo still has engineers in the driver’s seat in case something goes wrong.
The addition of thousands of new vehicles points to a big expansion of Waymo’s driverless vehicle services. The company recently said it would begin testing self-driving technology in the Atlanta area, but you don’t need a few thousand cars for that. Waymo is due to take delivery of the new vehicles from Fiat Chrysler by the end of 2018, so look for big things from Waymo in 2019. A self-driving car may be in your immediate future.
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