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Voyage's latest robotaxi prototype, a specially outfitted Chrysler Pacifica minivan. Photo: Voyage.

The Chrysler Pacifica — the quintessential family hauler for soccer moms and stay-at-home dads — has a cool side hustle. It's the go-to model for Silicon Valley engineers working on self-driving cars.

Why it matters: Minivan sales have plummeted as America's love affair with SUVs has grown. But Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is quietly carving out a new niche for the Pacifica hybrid with a purpose-built, AV-ready platform.

What's happening: At least four autonomous vehicle companies are upfitting their self-driving technology on the specially designed Pacific hybrid.

  1. Voyage, which is developing a robotaxi service for senior citizens, this week unveiled its latest prototype, the G3, based on the Pacifica.
  2. Waymo has been using Pacifica minivans to develop and test its self-driving technology for several years and now has more than 600 deployed.
  3. Aurora Innovation, another AV startup, is testing commercial routes in Texas with its fleet of self-driving Pacificas.
  4. AutoX, backed by Alibaba, plans to roll out a fleet of Pacifica-based robotaxis for China and other countries in Asia.

The Pacifica hybrid is ideal as a robotaxi because it's spacious, with sliding doors for easy access.

  • And the high-voltage battery helps power all the computer chips and sensors needed to feed the car's self-driving system.

Yes, but: Retrofitting an off-the-shelf minivan doesn’t give the self-driving technology access to the vehicle's own brain that would allow it to operate without a driver, notes Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron in a blog post.

  • So FCA designed an AV-specific version of the Pacifica, which includes redundant steering and braking systems and fail-safe power systems to run the sensors and software.
  • FCA works with its customers so they don't have to reverse engineer the vehicle when integrating their AV technology, an FCA spokesman said.

The bottom line: Voyage's latest AV prototype is half the cost of the previous generation and will be ready to go fully driverless next year, says Cameron.

What to watch: The Pacifica is currently the only minivan available as a hybrid, but the redesigned Toyota Sienna hybrid, coming later this year, could potentially become an AV platform as well.

  • Toyota officials will only say: "stay tuned."

Go deeper: Robotaxi startup Voyage loads self-driving vans with coronavirus-killing tech (Forbes)

Go deeper

Oct 30, 2020 - Economy & Business

How Trump and Biden would steer the future of transportation

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden would likely steer automotive policy in different directions over the next four years, potentially changing the industry's road map to the future.

Why it matters: The auto industry is on the cusp of historic technological changes and the next president — as well as the next Congress — could have an extraordinary influence on how the future of transportation plays out.

1 hour ago - World

Putin foe Navalny to be detained for 30 days after returning to Moscow

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Photo: Oleg Nikishin/Epsilon/Getty Images

Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny has been ordered to remain in pre-trial detention for 30 days, following his arrest upon returning to Russia on Sunday for the first time since a failed assassination attempt last year.

Why it matters: The detention of Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and the most prominent domestic critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has already set off a chorus of condemnations from leaders in Europe and the U.S.

Biden picks Warren allies to lead SEC, CFPB

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden has selected FTC commissioner Rohit Chopra to be the next director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and Obama-era Wall Street regulator Gary Gensler to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Why it matters: Both picks are progressive allies of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and viewed as likely to take aggressive steps to regulate big business.