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At Waymo, it's lights out for 'Firefly'

Waymo's self-driving car on display at the Viva Technology event in Paris in June 2016. Photo credit: REUTERS

Waymo has traded in the pod car for more practical wheels.

In a blog post Monday, the stand-alone company spun out of Google's self-driving car project said it has retired its koala-faced prototype, developed in 2013 and nicknamed internally "Firefly."

The decision comes as Waymo expands its fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans, offering rides in Arizona as part of its "early rider" program.

The Firefly played a primary role in Waymo's early history. It marks one of the first attempts to design a vehicle without driver controls -- a new-age challenge that Google turned to a consumer electronics designerto tackle. It was also the vehicle in which Waymo performed its first unsupervised self-driving ride in 2015.

Chris Urmson, then director of the self driving cars project at Google, posed for photos in front of a prototype self-driving car during a media preview of Google's prototype autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, Calif., on Sept. 29, 2015. Photo credit: REUTERS

Many of the engineers who worked on the Google car project in the age of the Firefly prototype have become big names in the autonomous vehicle world, from Chris Urmson and Sebastian Thrun -- who have gone on to launch self-driving technology and education startups -- to Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of Waymo's intellectual property lawsuit against self-driving competitor Uber.

Benching Firefly signals a new phase in Waymo's development of self-driving technology. To be a mass mobility provider, a two-seat pod car with a top speed of 25 mph will get you only so far. (I've driven behind a few of them, and they really don't go faster than 25 mph.) Waymo CEO John Krafcik has alsostatedthat the company will not build its own vehicles -- effectively making the retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica the "Waymo car."

Though Waymo had as many as 50 Firefly vehicles and 24 Lexus RX 450h crossovers permittedto test in California as of April, it has expanded its fleet of roomy Pacifica minivans to at least 600 vehicles, according to the company. In addition to its Arizona pilot, Waymo has partnered with ride-hailing company Lyft, which could allow it to expand its passenger rides to a larger network.

Waymo said a few of the Firefly vehicles will be on display at museums in California and London, serving as reminders that the increasingly competitive and high-stakes self-driving space began with a friendly face.

You can reach Katie Burke at kburke@crain.com -- Follow Katie on Twitter: @KatieGBurke

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