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July 22, 2020 2:45 PM, EDT

FCA, Waymo Extend Autonomous Partnership

Waymo vehicleFour years ago, FCA began providing its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to Waymo to test self-driving technology. (Waymo)

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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Google affiliate Waymo said July 22 they are extending their partnership in the development and testing of autonomous vehicles for commercial delivery and for future FCA products.

Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo will work exclusively with Fiat Chrysler on Level 4 autonomous light commercial vehicles for moving goods for commercial delivery customers. FCA also has selected Waymo as its exclusive partner in providing Level 4 autonomous technology they have developed together across the Italian-American automaker’s portfolio.

A Level 4 autonomous vehicle performs all driving tasks under certain circumstances, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Specific terms were not disclosed but the deal strengthens the collaboration between Waymo, which is recognized as a leader in the self-driving technology space, and Fiat Chrysler, whose pending merger known as Stellantis with French automaker Groupe PSA would create the fourth-largest global automaker with the intention of becoming a mobility leader.

Four years ago, FCA began providing its Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to Waymo to test self-driving technology. In 2018, it launched its Waymo One commercial ride-hailing service in Phoenix, which now tests its Level 4 driverless technology. The new agreement with FCA extends the partnership in a way that industry observers have predicted would follow from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Amidst the crisis, some things have changed very significantly in the industry is I think people’s unwillingness to get into a small confined space being a vehicle on a ride-share basis right after somebody else has been in the vehicle,” John Murphy, Bank of America’s senior automotive analyst, said during an Automotive Press Association presentation last month. “On the flip side of that, we’re all ordering in-home delivery, and last-mile delivery is becoming more valuable.

“I just think the focus of automotive Level 4 and 5 is going to shift toward the autonomous side of the equation for the industry, and the industry is going to focus on Levels 1 to 3 autonomous or advanced driver assist for their consumer side.”

Ram ProMaster

 Ram ProMaster (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

Waymo has launched a few pilot programs for local delivery with the Pacifica in the Phoenix area through its Waymo Via service, which is included under the new agreement. The companies initially will outfit Saltillo, Mexico-made Ram ProMaster vans with Waymo’s fifth-generation robotic driver for the testing. When, where and with how many vehicles is still to be determined.

“With this next step, deepening our relationship with the very best technology partner in this space, we’re turning to the needs of our commercial customers by jointly enabling self-driving for light commercial vehicles,” FCA CEO Mike Manley said in a statement.

Waymo has said previously it has contracts to buy up to 62,000 Pacifica Hybrids, which are made in Windsor, Ontario. It also has a deal to buy 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace SUVs, dozens of which have been outfitted since last summer with the Waymo Driver in its Detroit plant west of Hamtramck, Mich. It is unclear if the Ram vans will be outfitted there, as well.

The companies also already have begun imagining future FCA products in which to use the Waymo Driver to move people and goods. Whether those vehicles will be made available by retail, subscription or some other model has yet to be determined.

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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.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik in a statement added: “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 in October during the Forbes Under Summit in Detroit said its partner companies are interested in the ride-share model Waymo is seeking.

“But car companies are still in the business of selling cars, and it would be really cool if they could integrate the Waymo driver in a way that was available to the personal use buyer,” he said. “We’re working with OEMs on the way to unlock it.”

The challenge with that, however, is vehicles are often on the road for decades. That could make it difficult to keep them updated with the hardware and software that in a self-driving vehicle’s case keeps it operating safely.

“I think the model we go to market with will be different from the traditional ‘I’m going to buy it and then drive it for 20 to 30 years,’ ” Krafcik said. “It’ll be something more like a subscription system or after some time it moves into fleet service so we can consume those miles.”

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