Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (NYSE:FCAU) and Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Waymo unit announced on Monday that they have completed production of 100 test vehicles to be fitted with Waymo's prototype self-driving technology.

Waymo, of course, is the business formerly known as the Google Self-Driving Car Project. The new vehicles, specially modified Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, will represent a significant upgrade to Waymo's test fleet as it moves from Google "moon shot" to a fully fledged business under Alphabet's corporate umbrella.

Waymo's Chrysler Pacifica Hybrids incorporate changes made by FCA engineers to better integrate the company's self-driving hardware. Image source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

What the companies said

In a joint statement, the companies explained that the special Pacificas were created by a team made up of FCA and Waymo engineers that came together earlier this year. The Pacifica Hybrids destined for Waymo required modifications to the standard model's electrical, drivetrain, chassis, and structural systems in order "to optimize the Pacifica Hybrid for Waymo's fully self-driving technology," the companies said.

Waymo's new Pacificas aren't quite operational yet. The companies said that the vans are currently being fitted with the purpose-built computers, sensor arrays, telematics, and related bits that make up the hardware components of the Waymo self-driving system. The new Pacificas are expected to join Waymo's self-driving test fleet early in 2017.

What it means for Waymo

Unlike the famous Google "panda cars" that served as the company's first purpose-built self-driving test vehicles, the new Pacificas are capable of real-world, on-road operation in any climate.


Image source: Alphabet.

And unlike the Toyota and Lexus test vehicles that preceded the panda cars in the Google test fleet, the Pacificas have been modified by the manufacturer for deeper integration with the Waymo system. Inside and out, the Waymo system is much more deeply integrated with the overall vehicle than in earlier test cars. And while Waymo's Pacificas obviously look different from the standard production models, they have a much more polished appearance. 

That's a hint that Waymo is now thinking as much about how to bring its system to market as it is about refining the system itself.

What it means for FCA

For FCA, working with Waymo was a chance to jump-start its own technological efforts, which have fallen behind most big rivals'.

Unlike most of its global rivals, FCA has a very heavy debt load -- it has more debt, in fact, than cash. On top of that, CEO Sergio Marchionne has been pushing a series of aggressive product-revamp plans, including an expensive relaunch of the upscale Alfa Romeo brand. 

Waymo's self-driving sensors are much more neatly packaged than on earlier Google test cars. Image source: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.

Taken together, it's clear why FCA has lagged behind its rivals in electric cars and self-driving technology: It has had neither the money nor the engineering time to commit to those kinds of long-term tech research and development projects. 

"Our partnership with Waymo enables FCA to directly address the opportunities and challenges the automotive industry faces as we quickly approach a future where fully self-driving vehicles are very much a part of our daily lives," Marchionne said in Monday's statement. Translation: Our work with Waymo is helping us get up to speed.

What's next for the partnership

At least in public, the partners haven't given any indication that their partnership will extend beyond the completion of these 100 test vehicles. Waymo CEO John Krafcik's statement was noncommittal: "[FCA's teams] have been great partners, and we look forward to continued teamwork with them as we move into 2017," he said. 

FCA is expected to show a fully electric version of the Pacifica at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next month. Electric vehicles and self-driving systems often seem to go together. But how (and whether) FCA's self-driving plans -- with or without Waymo -- fit together with the battery-operated Pacifica remains to be seen. 

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