Waymo Testing Self-Driving Minivan Starting This Month

Waymo and Fiat Chrysler are working together on autonomous cars.

Timothy Healey
    Jan 18, 2017 4:38 PM  PT
Waymo Testing Self-Driving Minivan Starting This Month
author: Timothy Healey    

Waymo, which is Google's autonomous car division, will begin testing its self-driving minivans on roads in California and Arizona by the end of this month.

The minivans are modified Chrysler Pacifica hybrids that were built with Fiat Chrysler's help in a partnership the two companies announced back in May. These vans have special sensors and radar to help them function as self-driving cars.

Waymo built the radar, sensors and software for the vans, according to CEO John Krafcik. He said Waymo felt their system would work better if it were developed in-house specifically for autonomous driving as opposed to using existing parts.

"A single integrated system means that all the different parts of a self-driving car work together seamlessly," Krafcik said in a speech at the 2017 North American International Auto Show in Detroit earlier this month.

Krafcik also said that this approach lowered costs – for example, the company reduced the cost of the LIDAR sensor on top of the van by 90 percent. The roof-mounted LIDAR cost $75,000 just a few years back, according to Waymo. The company developed its own short- and long-range LIDAR and says its long-range LIDAR can detect a football helmet from a distance of two football fields.

Suppliers of LIDAR systems to other automakers might be concerned to hear that, but on the other hand, Google won't be the only player in the self-driving car space, so that means there will still be room for suppliers to develop their own systems.

Waymo has said in the past that it will not build its own self-driving cars but will supply its technology to legacy automakers and car/ride-sharing services. Honda is also in talks to work with Waymo, according to the automaker.

Waymo is now in its eighth year, and it has racked up a lot of test miles – it expects it will get over the 3 million mark by May of this year.

This program is one more baby-step in the direction of self-driving cars. Lowering the costs of hardware and software will help speed up adaptation, even if self-driving cars see only limited applications at first. The financial power of Google will help, as will the use of established automotive models – it will cost less to retrofit them with the necessary equipment than it will to build cars from scratch, even in small numbers.

Waymo's test miles will teach the industry important lessons about the pros and cons of self-driving cars, as well as how to address any issues that come up.