Google’s Waymo to start testing self-driving Chrysler minivans this month

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Waymo, the company previously known as Google Inc.’s self-driving car division, is finally starting to get serious about bringing its technology to market with the deployment of a test program with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

The two companies are planning to test about 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans later this month, all fitted with Waymo’s own suite of sensors and radar.

While a self-driving car test may not in itself be highly significant in an age where every man and his dog is getting into the market, what does make Google’s long awaited deployment into the market interesting is the economics. The tech giant has managed not only to deliver a nearly consumer ready product but to drive down the cost of the technology while doing so.

Waymo Chief Executive Officer Jeff Krafcik explained at a conference in Detroit Sunday that Waymo is now making its own LiDAR sensors, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges. It has brought the cost down 90 percent from $75,000 per unit in 2009 to a far more affordable $7,500 a unit now, with an aim to reduce that even further.

“We’re mastering the hardware and software to build a better driver for a truly self-driving car,” Kracfik is reported to have said. Bring down the cost of LiDAR may be a game-changer in the nascent self-driving car market given that Google’s competitors, including Ford Motor Co., Uber Inc. and even Nvidia Corp., haven’t managed to deliver self-driving car tech at a half-reasonable cost by consumer standards.

The announcement comes roughly a month after Google spun out its self-driving car division as Waymo. Waymo’s partnership with Fiat Chrysler dates back to May 2016, notable given that it was the first time Google had worked directly with a car maker versus building self-driving technology by itself. Since that announcement, Waymo was reported to be talking as well to Japanese car maker Honda Motor Co. for a potential partnership.

The Pacifica self-driving test vehicles will be road tested in Arizona and California later in January.

Image courtesy of Waymo/Google