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Why Fiat-Chrysler and Google are designing self-driving minivans

Google opened its autonomous driving project to outsiders this week with an agreement to install its current self-driving technology and test gear in a fleet of 100 new Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Until now, Google had pretty much worked by itself on self-driving cars. The choice of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was intriguing because FCA was playing catch-up to other automakers who are further down the road building self-drive cars.

In choosing minivans as the test bed, FCA and Google are subtly underscoring what could be an early use of self-drive vehicles: shuttles taking a half-dozen passengers around a spread-out corporate or academic campus, shuttling children to school, or taking passengers between a hotel and airport. The first self-drive minivans might be covering the same route repeatedly, dealing with known challenges.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited

2016 Fiat 500 Abarth CabrioNot surprisingly, Google and Fiat Chrysler didn’t run off at the mouth about the details of the deal. They did say FCA’s Chrysler unit will provide 100 new Pacifica minivans specially configured to work with Google’s self-driving hardware and instrumentation. Most Google test cars to date have been small cars, including the so-called bubble car that looks a lot like a Fiat 500 (inset), and several Lexus and Toyota cars.

Chrysler would design the minivan variant for use in testing, then Google would install the self-drive components such as sensors and steering gear. Both companies will have access to the data from test-driving the vehicles.

The new 2017 Chrysler Pacifica replaces both the Chrysler Town & Country and Dodge Caravan. Taken as a single entity, Chrysler minivans handily outsold both the Toyota Sienna and Honda Odyssey last year. The total minivan market is about 500,000 units a year, half what it was 15 years ago.

2017 Chrysler Pacifica Limited

Google’s end game isn’t certain. Automakers wonder, and worry, about whether Google would actually get in the business of selling self-driving cars. If so, it’s easier to contract for production rather than set up its own lines. Tesla, for all its many virtues, appears to be having quality control issues related to production of the Model S, and now with startup production of the Tesla Model X crossover, which has complex features such as the double-hinged gullwing doors.

FCA could well be a potential contractor to produce vehicles. It might not be as threatening as an Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Lexus, or Mercedes-Benz that are moving quickly toward shipping next-generation self-driving cars within the next two years. They would most likely be Level 3 self-driving, meaning the driver could be hands off the wheel, but still in the driver’s seat and ready to take control in a matter of seconds should the situation become too complex. It’s unclear whether the switch-over time would be 5, 10 or 30 seconds. A disengaged driver, possibly snoozing, would need at least 10 seconds to assume command of the car.

Last month, reports from Europe said that both BMW and Mercedes ended talks with Apple over the possibility of being Apple’s manufacturer for the iCar. The German website Handelsblatt (which conveniently has an English version, so feel free to click) said BMW bailed last fall, Mercedes more recently, over issues of control and customer (owner) data protection. If not those two, another possible for the Apple car is Magna Steyr, an Austrian-Canadian company that has built cars for BMW, Mercedes, and Mini.

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