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Google’s Waymo To Release Its First Fleet Of Self-Driving Minivans

Waymo’s first fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacific minivans will hit public roads later this month, according to an announcement made at Detroit’s North American International Auto Show on Sunday.

Waymo, the entity created when Google spun-off its self-driving automobile division in December of last year, made the announcement only two weeks after it promised, without further specifics, that it would unleash the minivans “sometime in 2017”.

Waymo’s retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica test fleet consists of 100 gas-electric hybrid vehicles, the details of which have been kept under wraps up until this weekend’s show. The Pacifica fleet will be tested on public roads in Mountain View, California and Phoenix, Arizona, where Waymo is already testing its self-driving Lexus SUV.

Waymo’s CEO Jeff Kracik also announced that this time around, the self-driving technology has been developed entirely in-house, a fact that is expected to cut costs considerably, and will allow Waymo to exercise complete control over all aspects of the hardware involved—not to mention make it easier for it to protect proprietary information.

Part of the in-house operations include manufacturing its own LIDAR sensor, which according to Kracik, allows it to cut costs for this item by 90 percent. But while the LIDAR sensor used to retail for $75,000 back when Google used to purchase the parts back in 2009, prices have since come down considerably, and now retail for just $7,999, meaning the savings for that particular part isn’t quite as significant.

Related: Lithium Prices Set To Jump As Tesla Doubles Global Battery Production

Still, manufacturing the part in-house will allow Waymo to manufacture the sensor to exact specifications instead of using off-the-shelf parts.

While Waymo’s self-driving minivans will no doubt play a vital role in the advancement of autonomous vehicles, critics say that roads filled with Level 5 vehicles—the industry term for cars that are fully autonomous and do not require human supervision—are still a fair way off.

"I need to make it perfectly clear, [full autonomy is] a wonderful, wonderful goal. But none of us in the automobile or IT industries are close to achieving true Level 5 autonomy. We are not even close," Gill Pratt, the CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, said at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show.

By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com

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