Google and Fiat Chrysler are teaming up, forming a first-stage alliance that could help bring autonomous vehicles to market by the end of the decade.
The trans-Atlantic automaker will provide 100 specially modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans to the tech giant for use in its autonomous test drive program. With programs underway in four regions around the country, including Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas, the move will more than double the number of prototypes Google now operates and could help it test its technology in more adverse climates.
"Working with Google provides an opportunity for FCA to partner with one of the world's leading technology companies to accelerate the pace of innovation in the automotive industry," said FCA Chief Executive Sergio Marchionne,, FCA. "The experience both companies gain will be fundamental to delivering automotive technology solutions that ultimately have far-reaching consumer benefits."
For his part, Google autonomous project chief John Krafcik hailed FCA as "nimble and experienced," and said the deal will help it "build more vehicles and get more testing miles under our belt."
So far, Google claims to have logged more than 1.4 million miles of testing with a fleet that currently including a number of modified Toyota and Lexus vehicles, as well as a growing number of "Google Cars," custom-made by Detroit auto supplier Rousch.
Juniper Research has hailed the tech giant as the world's leader in autonomous technology, but Google has still faced plenty of challenges. It has logged more than a dozen crashes since the project was launched seven years ago, though only one was blamed on a Google autonomous vehicle.
Proponents contend self-driving technology could drastically reduce the number of highway fatalities, a figure expected to top 33,000 in the U.S. when final data for 2015 is released. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind has suggested the agency's ultimate goal is zero road deaths.
NHTSA last month held the first in a series of hearings aimed at establishing new guidelines for autonomous vehicles. It expects to have preliminary rules in place by mid-year. That could make it easier for Google, FCA and others to expand testing and set the stage for production programs.
But critics have urged the federal agency to go a bit slower until the safety and reliability of the technology can be proven out. In particular, skeptics want to bar Google and other researchers from introducing fully driverless vehicles that would have no steering wheel or pedals.
Despite such concerns, autonomous technology is moving quickly to market. Tesla recently introduced its AutoPilot system, capable of hands-free operation on well-marked, limited-access roadways. Cadillac, Nissan and others plan to launch similar systems over the next year or two. Nissan, meanwhile, has said it expects to have 10 fully autonomous vehicles in production by 2020.
The debut of that technology could have far-reaching implications. Mega-investor Warren Buffett, for one, told CNBC that if autonomous vehicles live up to expectations and largely eliminate road crashes, injuries and fatalities, they could all but eliminate the need for automotive insurance carriers.
The initial Google-FCA deal is limited, and it has not yet been revealed whether they plan to move to the next stage, retail sales. Both companies noted that the deal is non-exclusive. Google has been talking to a number of potential partners. General Motors reportedly rejected a proposal due to concerns about intellectual property and data rights. Ford has also been rumored to be in talks with the tech firm, though a reported deal failed to materialize, as widely reported, last January.
As for Fiat Chrysler, CEO Marchionne has been openly on the prowl for partnerships. The carmaker has been turned down by conventional carmakers like General Motors, Ford and Renault-Nissan, but has also been looking at new entrants into the industry. Marchionne has repeatedly stressed that FCA needs to find alliances to help it reduce costs and gain access to technologies that might be too costly for it to develop on its own.
Google gets the opportunity to continue its development of autonomous driving technology in a modern plug-in hybrid platform that seems a logical candidate for the system. FCA gets the high-tech rub-off of being associated with the very visible Google," said Kelley Blue Book analyst Jack Nerad. "It's hard to look at this as anything but a win-win."
Read More from The Detroit Bureau
- Has Tesla Been Bending the Order Numbers for its Model 3 Battery-Car?
- Raise the Roof, Lower Your Mileage
- Ford the Latest Maker to Announce Long-Range Electric Vehicle
- Friend or Foe? NHTSA Hearings Bring Out Opposing Views on Autonomous Vehicles
- VW to Spend $8.8 Bil to Buy Back or Repair Rigged Diesels Sold in US