Google and Fiat Chrysler join forces on self-driving automobiles

Google and Fiat Chrysler will launch self-driving vehicles in four US cities before the end of the year, they announced Tuesday.

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Fiat Chrysler and Google announced Tuesday, May 3, that they will work together to more than double the size of Google's self-driving vehicle fleet by adding 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, like the 2017 Pacifica seen here in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Google will team up with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to develop their self-driving cars, the companies announced Tuesday.

Not so long ago, such a pairing seemed unlikely.

Google began working on autonomous driving technology in 2009, though the project wasn’t publicly announced until a year later. Chrysler quickly attacked the concept in an ad for the new Dodge Charger: “Hands-free driving, cars that park themselves, an unmanned car driven by a search-engine company,” intones the voice-over. “We've seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.”

Obviously, times have changed. Tuesday's announcement included news that the union will more than double Google's self-driving fleet, adding around 100 models of the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans. They say they hope to have the first round on the road by the end of 2016.

Until now, the testing fleet included only modified Lexus SUVs and Google's own two-door prototype, a car designed from the chassis up to be self-driving.

The Google-Fiat Chrysler collaboration continues the trend of partnerships between car manufacturers and the tech industry. In January, General Motors announced their own $500 million investment in self-driving vehicles, partnering with ride-share startup Lyft.

The minivan chosen for Google-Fiat Chrysler partnership could signal another shared-vehicle concept, speculate industry experts. "More seats means that these autonomous vehicles can be easily shared, allowing them to function more like public transportation," writes Allissa Walker for Gizmodo. She goes on to predict: "Self-driving shared vehicles are the future."

Other major automakers have hesitated to team up with tech companies out of concern that their future could be relegated to simple hardware manufacturing, reported Reuters. As a result, some car manufacturers have invested enormous amounts of money in growing their own technological expertise.

But in the case of Google and Fiat Chrysler, the deal – which does not preclude either company from cooperating with others – seems to offer obvious benefits to both sides.

Collaborating with Google allows the automotive giant "to partner with one of the world’s leading technology companies to accelerate the pace of innovation in the automotive industry," said Fiat Chrysler's chief executive officer, Sergio Marchionne.

For Google, the deal could mean freedom to focus on technology development without having to engineer road-safe automobiles. “The opportunity to work closely with FCA engineers will accelerate our efforts to develop a fully self-driving car that will make our roads safer and bring everyday destinations within reach for those who cannot drive,” said John Krafcik, chief executive of the Google Self-Driving Car Project.

Google's self-driving fleet has already faced some rigorous real-life driving tests.

According to Google’s self-driving car project website, Larry Page – Google co-founder and chief executive officer of parent company Alphabet Inc. – provided his team with two major goals at the onset of the program: Have self-driving cars travel 100,000 miles on public roads, and drive 10 sets of 100 challenging miles around the Bay Area. These courses included crossing the Golden Gate bridge, winding down iconic Lombard Street, and navigating the 100+ traffic lights of El Camino Real – the massive stop-and-go thoroughfare running north-south down the peninsula.

Since then, Google cars have self-driven their way over 1.5 million miles along the streets of four US cities: Mountain View, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Wash.; and Phoenix, Ariz. 

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