One of the most important vehicle’s at this year’s North American International Auto Show was Google autonomous car offshoot Waymo’s new self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan. It’s not the type of blood pumping product that car enthusiasts typically get excited about at auto shows, but due to the potential impact it could have on the way we live our day-to-day lives, it certainly commands some attention.
The vehicle itself was first shown in late December 2016 when Fiat Chrysler and Waymo announced it had taken delivery of 100 Pacifica Hybrid minivans. The autonomous car project, formerly dubbed ‘Alphabet Inc.’ by Google, will see the vans with radar, LIDAR, camera equipment and special software enabling autonomous operation. Waymo plans to begin testing the vehicles in California and Arizona later this month. It was so far accumulated more than 2.5 million test miles in the two states with its other self-driving test vehicles and plans to surpass the 3 million mark by May.
“Self-driving cars have the potential to prevent some of the 1.2 million deaths that occur each year on roads worldwide, 94 percent of which are caused by human error,” an official statement by FCA and Waymo reads. “This collaboration will help FCA and Waymo better understand what it will take to bring self-driving cars into the world.”
The significance of Waymo’s self-driving tech lies in the fact that it’s entirely homegrown. The company produced and developed the suite of sensors, 360-degree cameras and software systems that enable its autonomous operations in-house. If Waymo’s self-driving tech takes off, which seems a safe bet to make at this point, it will have engineers on staff with deep rooted knowledge of how these systems work. In addition, as the tech becomes more widespread and thus mass produced, the price of the LIDAR, radar and software equipment should drop dramatically. This would mean Waymo’s autonomous driving systems may be cheaper than those from competing companies, causing OEMs to flock to the Google subsidiary once they are interested in bringing self-driving cars to market.
It will still be a long while before you can open an app on your phone and have a driverless car come to pick you up, but the debut of Waymo’s Pacifica makes such a scenario seem not so far out. Other automakers such as General Motors, Audi and Tesla are also working hard at developing autonomous systems, which should further streamline the arrival of the tech.
If you’re of the set that finds autonomous cars a bit frightening and hate the idea of a world where driverless cars are everywhere and humans aren’t allowed to drive, don’t worry. Outgoing chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Mark Rosekind recently said the day when autonomous vehicles rules the roads is still decades away and that he and his organization underestimated the challenges transitioning to driverless cars might present.