Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Waymo are moving well beyond developing self-driving minivans together.
In a dramatic expansion of their four-year-old partnership, FCA and Waymo, once known as Google’s self-driving car project, plan to fit Ram ProMaster vans with Waymo Driver, the autonomous brains behind the hundreds of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in Waymo’s ride-hailing fleet. Developing self-driving technology for light commercial vehicles, such as the ProMaster van, highlights the growing importance companies see in delivery services, particularly since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But perhaps more significant for the long term in the announcement early Wednesday (late Tuesday on the West Coast) is news that Waymo is now slated to become the “exclusive, strategic partner” for higher-level self-driving technology across FCA’s fleet.
No financial terms for the deal were released, and no timeline has been provided.
The moves come as FCA has stopped working with Amazon-backed Aurora Innovation. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding in June 2019 “to investigate the development and deployment of self-driving commercial vehicles,” but the decision was “made to discontinue discussions,” according to a statement provided by FCA spokesman Nick Cappa.
Highlighting the strides from the original FCA/Waymo deal, FCA CEO Mike Manley noted that the Waymo-equipped Pacificas operating in the Phoenix area represent a partnership deploying autonomous technology “in the real world, on public roads.”
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“Our partnership is setting the pace for the safe and sustainable mobility solutions that will help define the automotive world in the years and decades to come,” Manley said in a news release, referencing level 4, which would be one level below self-driving technology able to manage all roads and conditions.
Self-driving technology development has continued to move forward in recent years, although many of the rosy early projections about the deployment pace for robocars have not materialized. A fatal crash in 2018 involving a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber boosted public scrutiny considerably.
Much of the development that has come to pass involves driver-assistance technology now available in many models. Waymo, however, has continued its self-driving push and is clearly one of the leaders.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik noted some milestones for the partnership with FCA to date, saying the Pacificas in Waymo’s fleet have “safely and reliably driven more fully autonomous miles than any other vehicle.”
According to Waymo, its vehicles have driven more than 20 million miles autonomously on public roads in 25 U.S. cities, with 15 billion miles of simulation testing.
“Together, we’ll introduce the Waymo Driver throughout the FCA brand portfolio, opening up new frontiers for ride-hailing, commercial delivery and personal-use vehicles around the world,” Krafcik said in the release.
FCA’s brands include Jeep, Ram, Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Maserati.
The Ram ProMaster is built at FCA’s Saltillo Van Assembly Plant in the Mexican state of Coahuila. It’s based on the Fiat Ducato, which the company builds through a partnership with Peugeot maker PSA Group. FCA and PSA Group are working toward a merger, which would create the world’s fourth-largest automaker. They recently announced that the new company would be called Stellantis.
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The proposed merger’s possible impact on reducing competition in the commercial van sector is an area of concern for European regulators, who last month announced a more in-depth investigation of the companies’ plans.
European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said in posted remarks that commercial vans are an “increasingly important market in a digital economy where private consumers rely more than ever on delivery services.”
The commission noted in a news release that either FCA or PSA Group is the market leader in light commercial vehicles in many countries, and a merger “would remove one of the main competitors.”
Follow Detroit Free Press reporter Eric D. Lawrence on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Fiat Chrysler to put Waymo self-driving tech on commercial vehicles