It was an emotional goodnight for Waymo’s Chrysler Pacificas as the company announced on March 30 that it was phasing out the plug-in hybrid minivans that have been operational for the last seven years. Taking its place will be the all-electric Jaguar I-PACE which the company said will be deployed in late April 2023.
The new all-electric vehicle will serve as the platform for the fifth-generation “Waymo Driver”. Don’t get confused, “Waymo Driver” is just a fancy term the company uses to define the collection of its self-driving software and hardware that allows the car to navigate without a human driver behind the wheel.
The transition will make the entire fleet under the company’s Waymo One ride-hailing service fully electric. According to the company, the transition will allow them to join the White House EV Acceleration Challenge and support the administration’s goal to cut greenhouse emissions.
“For many, hailing a fully autonomous ride with Waymo may be the easiest way to access an EV,” the company wrote in a blog post. “Our growing ride-hailing service not only increases sustainable transportation options but also offers Waymo’s safety benefits to the communities we serve.”
Although EVs can cut carbon emissions prevalent with their gasoline counterparts, Waymo said that benefit is not achieved because most of them are parked 95% of the time. The company stressed that the benefits can only be realized if more EVs are driven around—which Waymo wants to achieve with all-electric autonomous ride-hailing vehicles.
To further achieve zero-emission ride-hailing service, Waymo will rely on 100% renewable energy for charging its fleet. Waymo said the transition to I-PACE will help them to optimize operational and technical support for higher efficiency.
“Our machine learning-based fifth-generation Waymo Driver learns more with every mile traveled, so deploying our existing I-Pace fleet into the East Valley will only further advance the performance and reliability of the Driver as we continue to scale,” the company wrote.
Waymo expands testing city to Austin
A day after announcing the retirement of Pacifica, the autonomous driving company revealed that it would be expanding its autonomous vehicle test to Austin. In the blog post, the company went down memory lane to reveal that Steve Mahan, a legally blind male, was the first person in the world to ride in a fully autonomous vehicle on October 20, 2015.
Interestingly, that ride took place on the residential streets in Austin in Waymo’s Firefly prototype which happens to be the first generation of Waymo Driver. The company noted that a lot has changed in the city since then, including the presence of 30% more people.
“We’re building our technology to drive anywhere—any city, one diver,” the company wrote in a blog post. “So, the lessons we learn from Austin will help us improve the Waymo Driver everywhere we operate, both today and in the future.”
Within an unspecified number of months, Waymo will start testing its fifth-generation driver mounted on the Jaguar I-PACE platform. The test will focus on central and East Austin including the Capitol, Holly, the Market District, Bouldin Creek, and Rainey Street,
“A lot of the experiences you encounter on Austin’s roads are useful for what we’re already doing in Phoenix and San Francisco,” said Nathaniel Fairfield, one of the software engineers at Waymo that made the first Firefly ride in Austin possible. “All three are fast-changing cities with busy downtowns that host a ton of live events. But there is also a uniquely Austin flavor—not just the pedicabs or the squirrels, but the pedestrian traffic on The Drag, or the way the road layouts change between neighborhoods.”
According to Waymo, over the years they have driven in dozens of cities and the experiences learned from each drive are used to improve the Waymo Driver. For example, the Waymo Driver can now navigate better in heavier rain, thanks to the rigorous tests in different weather ranges across Bellevue, New York City, and Miami.
In Austin, Waymo will also work with different local organizations to improve access to mobility and road safety. It was an emotional return for most of the staff to the city where it all started after four generations of Waymo Driver.
Waymo’s decision to retire Pacifica is likely due to new regulations
There are speculations that Waymo’s decision to transition to EVs may have been inspired by the regulation of where it operates. California passed a bill in 2021 that required all autonomous vehicles plying public roads to be electric by 2030.
California is considered the ground zero for autonomous vehicle testing in the United States. There are about 50 companies licensed to operate autonomous tests in the state. Also, Waymo is up against competitors that have either transitioned or are in the process of transitioning to electric vehicles.
For example, Zoox’s autonomous vehicles are all-electric. Cruise makes use of Chevy Bolts while Motional is in the process of making the switch to the all-electric fleet of Hyundai Ioniq 5s.
Some autonomous vehicle operators have debated that EVs are not suitable for self-driving models because of how long they take to charge which can negatively impact the vehicle’s “uptime”. According to them, autonomous vehicles need to be on the move for the maximum number of hours transporting people and goods if the operators are to make any profit. Besides this, they will likely be a money sink.
EV charging time varies with some taking over 40 minutes, depending on the battery capacity and the type of charger used. This is precious time lost by the operators. How to keep EVs charged will likely be a challenge that Waymo and other autonomous vehicle operators making use of EV fleets will need to find a way to overcome.