Autonomous Chrysler Minivans

the standalone venture that emerged from Google’s self-driving car project, on Monday unveiled a fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans with the latest high-tech sensors, telematics, and other gear designed for fully autonomous operation.

Modifications were made to several parts of the Pacifica — including its electrical, powertrain, chassis and structural systems — to optimize it for fully autonomous driving.

With the additional computer equipment, the cars will undergo more challenging tests. They will be subjected to a broader variety of traffic and weather conditions, as well as other variables, with the goal of being ready for introduction by 2017.

“Waymo chose the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, as its well-suited for Waymo’s self-driving systems,” said FCA spokesperson Berj M. Alexanian.

“As a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, the Pacifica Hybrid is fuel-efficient, which is important to Waymo,” he told TechNewsWorld. “Pacifica Hybrid offers a highly refined and comfortable ride experience. Using Pacifica Hybrid also gives Waymo a chance to test a different kind of passenger vehicle.

 

The Waymo Brand

The announcement comes just days after Waymo unveiled new branding and a new team of executives, amid increasing competition to bring autonomous vehicles to the U.S. market.

The joint program team has worked to integrate the self-driving computers and other systems into the Chrysler Pacifica minivans to get them ready for use, noted Waymo CEO John Krafcik. The work has included more than 200 hours of extreme-weather testing since the companies originally announced the partnership in June.

Waymo and Fiat Chrysler have co-located part of their engineering teams to a new facility in southeastern Michigan to speed development. The companies also have conducted extensive testing at FCA’s Chelsea Proving Grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, and the Arizona Proving Grounds in Yucca, Arizona, as well as Waymo’s test track in California.

FCA sells cars under the Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge, Ram and SRT performance vehicle brands. The firm also distributes under the Alfa Romeo and Topar brands.

 

Improved Safety

The introduction of the fully equipped Pacifica minivan is a signal that Waymo may be focusing on autonomous vehicle technology as a means of making driving more efficient and safer for families, suggested Michael Harley, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book.

“This is something deep in the heart of what a family would purchase,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Waymo has emphasized its track record of operating test vehicles in a safe manner — Krafcik last week posted a copy of Google’s November self-driving report on Twitter.

During autonomous testing, 24 Lexus RX450 SUVs and 34 prototype vehicles navigated shared roads and successfully engaged in lane splitting — accommodating motorcyclists that bobbed and weaved, making multiple lane changes, the report shows.

The rollout of the Chrysler Pacifica minivans puts Google well ahead of its direct technology industry competitors in the race to get autonomous vehicles in the hands of the public, said Egil Juliussen, principal analyst for automotive technology at IHS Markit.

“Basically Google needs more vehicles to test,” he told TechNewsWorld. “They’ve advanced quite a lot.”

The testing of such a minivan offers Waymo a more flexible set of options when considering the kind of vehicles it wants to deploy when it makes its first commercial introduction of fully autonomous vehicles.