AVs Accelerate: Cruise Gets More Cash & Waymo More Cars

Waymo and GM Cruise just took big steps toward commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles, with Waymo signing a deal for as many as 62,000 Fiat Chrysler minivans and Cruise lining up as much as $3.35 billion in new funding.

Despite setbacks such as the fatal crash of an Uber test vehicle in March, and widespread public apprehension about AVs, major vendors’ programs to refine and commercially deploy self-driving cars continue to move ahead.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) has announced plans to supply more Chrysler Pacifica minivans to Waymo in late 2018 for the Google spinoff’s commercial driverless taxi service in the Phoenix area. The announcement on Thursday, May 31, fleshes out a commitment made earlier this year to provide “thousands” of the vehicles to Waymo.

The automaker has already delivered 600 Pacificas to Waymo, and the service is on track to launch this year, the companies said Thursday. Waymo has driverless minivans on roads around Phoenix already, giving free rides to selected consumers in a pilot program.

The two companies also said they are starting to talk about using Waymo self-driving technology in an FCA vehicle that consumers can buy. They didn’t predict when such a product might come out.

Waymo appears set to bring driverless ride-hailing to market before its rivals. It plans to offer a range of vehicles for different kinds of rides, and in late March announced a deal with Jaguar Land Rover for about 20,000 electric, self-driving I-PACE SUVs over the next two years.

On Thursday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said his company is in talks to add Waymo self-driving vehicles to its ride-hailing fleet.

Also on Thursday, the SoftBank Vision Fund announced it would invest up to $2.25 billion in Cruise Automation, General Motors’ autonomous vehicle subsidiary. GM stepped up at the same time with an additional pledge of $1.1 billion.

The companies announced Cruise would be ready to commercialize AV technology at scale next year. GM announced in January that it would put self-driving, electric Chevrolet Bolt subcompacts on the road for a commercial ride service next year.

The Softbank Fund’s investment partly depends on that commercial deployment. It will inject $900 million into Cruise immediately, holding back the other $1.35 billion until the company is ready for commercial launch. After both investments, the fund will own a 19.6% stake in Cruise. The two investments value Cruise at $11.5 billion.

By owning Cruise, a San Francisco-based startup it acquired in 2016 for more than $1 billion, GM can develop and package self-driving vehicles and software under one roof. Versions of the Bolt with autonomous technology already roll off GM assembly line near Detroit for testing on public roads, including in San Francisco.

“The GM Cruise approach of a fully integrated hardware and software stack gives it a unique competitive advantage,” Michael Ronen, managing partner at SoftBank Investment Advisers, wrote in a press release.

The SoftBank Vision Fund was founded last year by Japan’s SoftBank Group, Apple, Qualcomm, Foxconn, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and other investors. It’s designed to be a $100 billion fund to further technology advancements.

SoftBank Group last year led a group of investors that acquired 17.5% of Uber.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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