Weekly Brief: Google partners with FCA to bring self-driving tech to minivans

Let’s be honest, it’s tough to make a minivan cool. Nothing better encapsulates the descent from the freedom of our youth into the practicality of parenthood than a pair of sliding doors and a boxy frame.

But a minivan souped-up with self-driving car technology from Google? That just may do it. Google inked a partnership last week with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) to supply 100 2017 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, into which Google will plug its autonomous software and sensors. The first of these vans should be on the road for testing in California by the end of the year.

Come 2017 Google plans to have doubled the size of its autonomous fleet to 200 vehicles and has firmed up its transition toward becoming an automotive supplier rather than an automaker, as it would prefer. FCA, some would say, may not be at the cutting edge of automotive design but its cars are competent and it doesn’t have any autonomous driving ambitions of its own, making it a more ideal partner for Google than, say, Mercedes-Benz, Ford or General Motors.

In other news, Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk promised investors that his company would ramp up production tenfold in the next three years. Tesla sold roughly 50,000 cars in 2015; Musk wants to hit 100,000 electric vehicles a year by 2017 and 500,000 by 2018. That kind of growth sounds farfetched, even with the new $35,000 (£24,200) Model 3 on the market but Musk has of defied expectations in the past. He says he’s so determined to hit his latest goal that he’s moved his desk to the production line at Tesla’s factory in Fremont, California.

Bentley ventured into Apple Watch land with a new app for the Bentley Bentayga. The free app allows passengers to remotely control the on-board climate and entertainment systems; adjust the heating, ventilation and massage functions of their seats; and monitor real-time information, such as vehicle speed, distance travelled and outside temperature.

Add the Hyundai 2017 Elantra Eco to the growing list of cars featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Eco retails for $20,650 and thus distinguishes itself as the most affordable car yet to have the smartphone-based infotainment systems in the dash. Blind spot detection and lane change assist both come standard on the Elantra Eco as well.

Bosch showed off its vision for the future of the connected car at this year’s re:publica conference in Berlin. Picture a cockpit decked out with large surface monitors across the dashboard, with a landing strip of more monitors descending the centre console to the cup holders. The screens work in tandem to warn of potential hazards (pedestrians, bikers, etc), to highlight real-time traffic updates and weather, offering and easy transition to automated driving, even to morph into a video conferencing cubicle. The car connects to the Internet of Things, too, with a fingerprint sensor in allowing drivers to open the front door of their homes remotely.

BMW announced that it increased the range of its popular EV, the BMW i3, by 40% in the 2017 model year. The car is outfitted with a new Samsung 94Ah battery that takes the range from 114 miles to 186 miles on a single charge. The company is offering a high-voltage retrofit programme to its German owners but has no plans, as yet, to roll this out to other markets, a BMW UK spokesman told us last week.

Finally, self-driving technology promises a radical improvement in car safety, with fewer accidents and serious injuries for people on the road. That’s fantastic news, except that car accidents generate job opportunities for large swaths of humanity, from mechanics to highway patrol to firemen to anyone who works in the auto insurance industry.

The answer? To avoid ecosystem collapse, industry and government need to work together proactively, said a panel of experts organised by Volvo Cars and Thatcham Research in London last week. The experts noted that the latest estimates suggest that autonomous technology could wipe $20Bn off insurance premiums globally by 2020 alone, according to research by HERE and Swiss Re.

“The medium-to-long-term impact on the insurance industry is likely to be significant,” said Hakan Samuelsson, president and chief executive of Volvo Cars. “But let’s not forget the real reason for this – fewer accidents, fewer injuries, fewer fatalities.”

Two weeks ago Volvo announced plans to launch Drive Me London, which come 2017 will be the UK’s largest trial of autonomous vehicles.

The Weekly Brief is a round-up of the week’s top telematics news, combining TU analysis with information from industry press releases.

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