Fiat Chrysler has scored one of the first major partnerships of the self-driving era with confirmation of earlier reports of its agreement to incorporate Google autonomous-vehicle technology into a test fleet of 100 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.
No matter what the actual results of the tests are or how they influence driverless cars of the future, the agreement notched a significant victory for Fiat Chrysler, which has been seen as a laggard in moving into the self-driving realm—after it was seen as a laggard in vehicle electrification.
“Working with Google provides an opportunity for FCA to partner with one of the world’s leading technology companies to accelerate the pace of innovation in the automotive industry,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a press release. “The experience both companies gain will be fundamental to delivering automotive technology solutions that ultimately have far-reaching consumer benefits.”
As the Washington Post notes, “Consumers won’t be able to purchase the self-driving minivan. Google will test the self-driving Chrysler Pacifica hybrid on its private track before testing them on public roads.”
The companies expect to put the first test units on the road later this year, expanding a pre-existing self-driving test program that Google has been running for a few years. Fiat Chrysler will handle designing and engineering of the test vehicles, which will be based on the Hybrid version of its soon-to-launch new Pacifica, the subject of a new Chrysler ad campaign starring Jim Gaffigan. Google will integrate sensors and computer systems into the vehicles.
This collaboration with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is the first time we’ve worked directly with an automaker to create our vehicles. 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. 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.
In the coming months, our team will collaborate closely with FCA engineers. This experience will help both teams better understand how to create a fully self-driving car that can take you from A to B with the touch of a button. Collaborations like these are an important part of realizing the potential of self-driving technology to improve road safety and make transportation more accessible for millions of people.
Fiat Chrysler “has a nimble and experienced engineering team” and the vehicle “is well-suited for Google’s self-driving technology,” said John Krafcik, CEO of the Google Self-Driving Car Project, in the joint press release. Among other things, the Pacifica can carry many people and so could make a good platform for ride-sharing aspects of self-driving.
Also, Fiat Chrysler could offer Google the necessary car designing and manufacturing expertise without insisting on presenting its own fully developed and potentially competing vision of how self-driving vehicles should work, Forbes.com contributor David Kiley opined.
In fact, Marchionne has said for a while that Fiat Chrysler would like to link up with Silicon Valley companies, and he has mentioned Apple in such contexts. In general, he has been pushing a merger of his company with some other automotive titan, with a similar motivation to conserve capital and most efficiently utilize capacity and other resources in a very expensive and competitive global business.
Forbes.com speculated that this partnership could even be a prelude to Krafcik’s interest in taking over as CEO of Fiat Chrysler, with Marchionne intending to retire in about two years. Krafcik was the exec who put the American arm of Hyundai on the map.
In any event, even though this linkup is by definition limited, Fiat Chrysler beat other automakers to the punch in forming an alliance with a Silicon Valley leader for the autonomous-driving push.
There were rumors late last year that Ford and Google were going to team up, but that didn’t happen. Since then, Ford CEO Mark Fields has made a major point—internally and publicly—of bringing his company to the fore as an intended significant player in the mobility business including self-driving.