Fiat Chrysler, Google to partner on autonomous minivans

Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Google’s self-driving car division expect a new partnership to start testing self-driving minivans by year’s end.

The automaker and tech giant announced Tuesday they will work collaboratively to integrate Google’s self-driving technology into a fleet of 100 custom-built 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans.

The non-exclusive partnership marks the first time Google has worked directly with an automaker to integrate its self-driving system — including its sensors and software — into a passenger vehicle.

“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,” Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne said in a statement. “The experience both companies gain will be fundamental to delivering automotive technology solutions that ultimately have far-reaching consumer benefits.”

Both companies will move undisclosed numbers of their engineering teams to a facility in southeastern Michigan to accelerate the design, testing and manufacturing of the self-driving Pacificas.

Google said it will own the minivans and they’ll be part of its own testing program, with the technology company owning any data or information collected.

The collaboration is expected to give Fiat Chrysler additional credibility in the auto tech sector — a space in which it has been lacking, compared to General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co.

“There’s no exclusivity here whatsoever,” said Jack R. Nerad, Kelley Blue Book executive market analyst. “It’s a nice steppingstone to test out a relationship with one another. It’s kind of like a first date. They can test how compatible they are; I think the cultures are very different.”

Amid reports last week of an impending partnership, analysts had said Fiat Chrysler would be relatively flexible on matters such as who owns data. Disagreements over those terms likely hampered a reported potential partnership with Ford Motor Co. and the tech giant that had been expected to be announced at the CES technology show in January.

Bob O’Donnell, president and chief analyst for Silicon Valley-based TECHnalysis Research LLC, on Tuesday said he expects Google will continue to pursue partnerships with other automakers because tech firms are used to partnering with others.

“They’d love to have a deal with everybody,” he said. “The question is does everybody want to have a deal with Google?”

The self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans will be tested by Google’s self-driving car team on the company’s track in California. Google’s self-driving cars are tested in four cities: Mountain View, California; Austin, Texas; Kirkland, Washington; and Phoenix, Arizona.

Using a minivan, Google said, gives the company an opportunity to test a larger vehicle that could be easier for passengers to enter and exit.

“FCA has a nimble and experienced engineering team and the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan is well-suited for Google’s self-driving technology,” Google Self-Driving Car Project CEO John Krafcik said in a statement. “The opportunity to work closely with FCA engineers will accelerate our efforts to develop a fully self-driving car that will make our roads safer and bring everyday destinations within reach for those who cannot drive.”

The announcement came minutes after the New York Stock Exchange closed Tuesday. Investors reacted positively, with Fiat Chrysler shares up 3 percent in after-hours trading.

Google parent company Alphabet Inc. shares were relatively unchanged during after-hours from their closing price of $692.36 per share.

The minivan fleet will more than double Google’s current garage of 70 self-driving cars and increase its testing in a real production vehicle. “This is a chance for them to build real product, using their technology,” O’Donnell said. “That becomes a real proof point for the rest of the industry.”

Krafcik and Marchionne have emphasized the need to partner with other companies on next-generation technologies and autonomous vehicles.

“Automakers have the talent and the track record of producing cars at scale,” Krafcik said at the Automotive News World Congress in January in Detroit. “As our technology progresses, we hope to work with many of you guys ... for are all sorts of partnerships we’re going to have to form in order to deliver this technology to users around the world.”

For more than a year, Marchionne has been saying that the auto industry needs to consolidate efforts to save billions of dollars annually. He has said Fiat Chrysler was in talks with many players outside the car sector about possible collaborations.

Kelley Blue Book senior analyst Karl Brauer expects more technology company-automaker partnerships are on the horizon, as those technology companies realize how challenging it is to build cars.

“I think it’s a sign of things to come,” he said in an email. “It may or may not lead to a long-term collaboration with FCA, but I would expect to see other tech companies, including Apple and Uber, form similar limited partnerships with established automakers as they get closer to launching self-driving cars.”

Staff Writers Melissa Burden and Michael Martinez contributed.