As Uber pulls back on public autonomous car testing following a recent fatal accident in one of its self-driving vehicles, Waymo is moving full steam ahead with on-the-road assessments of the technology.
On the eve of the New York Auto Show, for example, Waymo announced that it would buy, outfit, and deploy 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace fully electric SUVs for autonomous ride-sharing purposes by the end of 2018.
“Not 2019, not 2020, but by the end of this year,” Waymo CEO John Krafcik announced at a press conference in New York. Krafcik also said Waymo plans to eventually provide 1 million robo-taxi rides per day.
The self-driving Jaguar I-Paces will join the fleet of fully autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans Waymo has been testing in the Phoenix area with passengers onboard since last April, as part of its “early rider program.” While the program started out with safety drivers behind the wheel of the minivans, Waymo shifted in Novebmer to not having humans at the helm.
“When people use Waymo’s [ride-sharing] service, they’ll have access to a broad selection of vehicles tailored for their trip,” Krafcik added last week. “They can choose a minivan if they’re traveling to soccer practice with their family. If two people are running a quick errand, why not take a self-driving Jaguar?”
I-Pace a Perfect Match for Waymo
Waymo probably had its pick of automakers to work with, and any car company would, of course, welcome selling 20,000 vehicles in one fell swoop. But the partnership came about because Waymo was looking for a specific type of vehicle and Jaguar was able to deliver it before competitors.
“The way this partnership came about is we contacted Waymo to learn about their technology,” Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) North America president and CEO Joe Eberhardt told me in an interview at the New York Auto Show last week. “They contacted us almost in parallel because they were looking for a certain type of car for their fleet and had specifications that we just happen to meet almost perfectly with the I-Pace.”
“We surveyed the world and found that the I-Pace was the best next vehicle for Waymo,” Krafcik said. “Its size makes it perfect for city driving. Its modern electrical architecture means it’s well suited to our technologies. And it’s big, fast-charging battery means it can drive all day, which is perfect for our self-driving service.”
“We fulfilled all of that and we were ready to go to market,” Eberhardt added. “If you look at battery electric vehicles, the I-Pace is the very first SUV from an established player. Yes, Tesla was there before us, but amongst the others we’re the first. And for Waymo it was really a perfect match.”
While Waymo gets a luxury battery electric vehicle with the specs and range it needs, JLR gets to partner with one of the premier self-driving players. “With this partnership, Waymo will help us gain access to technology and learn from it and allow us to get to the forefront,” Eberhardt said.
This is significant since, as a niche automaker compared to larger luxury competitors, the partnership with Waymo gives JLR an edge on self-driving innovation, without the massive R&D expenditure others in the space are making. “Now we’re right there with the best,” Eberhardt said.
JLR will also continue its own self-driving R&D and testing in the UK “with all the universities and scientific institutions and research centers we’re working with,” Eberhardt added. “But this will also be influenced and informed by whatever we learn from the partnership and vice-versa. And I think it can only get stronger as a result.”
JLR will also get plenty of exposure for the new I-Pace, which goes on sale in the US later this year. Eberhardt pointed out that the 20,000 vehicles will be purchased over the six years of the partnership but added that “the sales will probably happen towards the front end” of the period.
“Just to get the exposure for the brand and the product is phenomenal,” Eberhardt said. “That was a big aspect for us to do the deal. That’s marketing you can’t buy.”
And I’m guessing that, given the option, more people will probably want to ride in a self-driving Jaguar I-Pace rather than a Chrysler Pacifica. “The vehicle itself is graceful in the long tradition of Jaguar,” Waymo’s Krafcik said. “Combined with our self-driving technology, it will provide a safe, delightful experience for our passengers.”