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.
- Voyage, which is developing a robotaxi service for senior citizens, this week unveiled its latest prototype, the G3, based on the Pacifica.
- Waymo has been using Pacifica minivans to develop and test its self-driving technology for several years and now has more than 600 deployed.
- Aurora Innovation, another AV startup, is testing commercial routes in Texas with its fleet of self-driving Pacificas.
- 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)