Waymo to test the first self-driving Pacificas on public roads in California and Arizona
Technology giant Alphabet Inc.’s (NASDAQ: GOOG) Google is set to redefine futuristic mobility with the launch of its latest self-driving system in Chrysler Pacifica minivans during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, as reported by Reuters on January 08th, 2017. Waymo, the company formed from Alphabet’s Google Self-driving Car research project, is designing and building all the sensors, radar and computers used in its automated test vehicles, along with the artificial intelligence programs that control everything.
According to John Krafcik, CEO of the Waymo unit, Alphabet has a partnership with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. (NYSE: FCAU), the world’s seventh-largest automaker, to develop and install the company’s autonomous driving technology into real cars. At the auto show, Alphabet unveiled a latest set of self-driving hardware and software that incorporates a new array of sensors, including an enhanced vision system, improved radar and laser-based Lidar, all developed and built in-house. Waymo is using the new hardware and software in Chrysler Pacifica minivans that begin road tests in January 2017. A total of 100 of these vans are fitted with radars, sensors, cameras, and laser LiDAR units for 360-degree, high-definition images of a vehicle’s surroundings.
Krafcik said Waymo had reduced the cost of a single LiDAR unit by 90% to about $7,500. Among major suppliers of this technology, Velodyne LiDAR Inc. and Quanergy Systems Inc. are developing smaller solid-state LiDAR units that eventually would cost $200 or less. Waymo’s existing test fleet of self-driving cars, including some specially equipped Lexus RX450s and Google’s own Firefly prototypes, has accumulated nearly 2.5 million miles in less than eight years, mostly on city streets. Krafcik also predicted the company’s technology will show up in ride-hailing services, logistics and personal and public transportation.
Krafcik said Waymo planned to test the first self-driving Pacificas in January 2017 on public roads in California and Arizona. Alphabet and Fiat Chrysler are doubling down on their self-driving partnership, adding about 100 more Pacifica Hybrid minivans to an autonomous fleet, which was first announced in May 2016. In December 2016, the two companies announced the production of the initial 100 minivans equipped with the technology developed by Waymo. Waymo plans to roughly double the number in 2017, with plans to use the Chrysler vehicles in a commercial ride-sharing service expected to launch later in 2017.
Waymo set to compete with ride-hailing cab firms
A Waymo ride-sharing service would compete with existing firms like Uber Technologies Inc. or Lyft Inc. A fully driverless car that is used a lot would reduce ride-sharing costs to $0.20 per vehicle mile from the current $1.50 per vehicle mile, according to Google estimates. Cars retrofitted with self-driving technology would pay for themselves in five years, thanks to lower insurance rates and higher productivity.
Delphi Automotive PLC (NYSE: DLPH) and Mobileye N.V. (NYSE: MBLY) have said they are collaborating on a self-driving system that could be sold to automakers beginning in 2019. Ford Motor Co (NYSE: F), General Motors Co (NYSE: GM) and BMW AG have said they intend to introduce self-driving cars in 2021.
Alphabet likely to sell Skybox satellite business
With much of its focus leaning on launching a commercial driverless ride-sharing service later in 2017, Alphabet seems to have put its ambitious internet service plans on the backburner for now.
The company is said to be in talks to sell its Skybox Imaging satellite business, which it acquired for $500 million less than three years ago, as reported by Bloomberg on January 10th, 2017. Planet, a satellite imaging startup formerly known as Planet Labs that has raised more than $150 million, is looking to acquire Skybox. Some employees from the Alphabet division, renamed Terra Bella in 2016, would move to Planet as part of the deal.
When Google acquired Skybox in June 2014, the search giant believed that its equipment would help keep Google Maps accurate with up-to-date imagery. It also hoped to use the technology to improve internet access and disaster relief. The division operated within Google’s mapping business and it launched few smaller satellites. Alphabet was also looking to offer internet access service globally, partly through networks of small satellites. However, in October 2016, Alphabet seemed to have had a change in plans when it cut about 9% of staff from its Fiber fast internet service division. Instead of developing its own satellites, Alphabet began investing in other companies that do so.
In 2013, Google hired satellite industry pioneer Greg Wyler to work on a $1 billion-plus project for the internet giant, but Wyler left in September 2014 to start his own company, OneWeb. Soon after, Google bought a stake in Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which launches satellites. The Skybox sale to Planet will likely be an equity transaction, where Alphabet would own a stake in the latter.
Potential Skybox-Planet merger to help take on bigger rivals
Skybox and Planet are fierce rivals in the emerging market for small, yet capable satellites that can take near-constant pictures of the planet’s surface. The technology has been billed as helpful for things like tracking deforestation and counting the number of cars in retail store parking lots to gauge sales. The companies differed in their approach, with Skybox aiming to make larger satellites with higher image resolution, while Planet has looked to use more, smaller satellites. Skybox’s momentum seemed to have slowed down since Google’s acquisition, while Planet has continued to raise money and send many satellites into space. Both companies compete against the heavyweights of the satellite imaging business such as DigitalGlobe Inc. (NYSE: DGI) and Airbus Defense & Space, a unit of Airbus Group SE.
Alphabet’s stock stood at $806.36, slipping 0.19%, at the close on Thursday, January 12th, 2017, having vacillated between an intraday high of $807.39 and a low of $799.17 during the session. The stock’s trading volume was at 1,352,857 for the day. The Company’s market cap was at $549.06 billion as of Thursday’s close.