What would a Google-branded vehicle be like?
That question has been a subject of fascination in the auto industry since the tech giant's self-driving car project emerged from the science lab and ventured onto Silicon Valley streets in Lexus RXs, Franken-fitted with whirling lidars and sensors.
It has been an especially curious question since the company renamed itself Waymo and hired manufacturing guru John Krafcik as its CEO, leading to speculation that it might want to build its own cars someday.
But that's not the plan.
Waymo does want to be in the auto business, with its own brand, starting with a fleet of autonomous taxis this year. But instead of spending billions on assembly plants and the development of its own vehicles and platforms, Waymo is partnering with automakers to use their cars and trucks to showcase its technology brand and develop a lineup of vehicles.
The brand-building approach takes a page from the old Saleen and Shelby works, tuners and stylists of limited-edition, high-performance vehicles based on Ford Mustangs and pickups. But it's a more democratic version of that concept. The idea is that a Waymo-branded vehicle can be whatever you want it to be: a minivan or a sedan, an EV or an SUV.
"Our ultimate goal is to provide a self-driving vehicle tailored to every trip and to every purpose," Krafcik said during a media event in late March. "We can do this because we're building the driver, and this same driver can be adapted for all kinds of vehicles."
Waymo's partnerships include Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and Jaguar Land Rover for its upcoming I-Pace electric crossover. More partnerships, according to Krafcik, are being discussed.
These vehicles, Krafcik says, were selected for specific purposes such as new electrical architectures, safety standards and, in regard to the minivans, sliding doors for easy access and control. By working with a large-scale automaker, Krafcik believes the self-driving company can quickly scale the technology.
"This is so important," Krafcik told a small roundtable of reporters after the event. "We're not a car company."
Automakers are expected to potentially supply tens of thousands of vehicles a year for Waymo to use in its upcoming autonomous ride-hailing fleet — scheduled to launch in Phoenix this year and expand from there.
Waymo is expected to begin testing its self-driving technology with the I-Pace this year, followed by production models — up to 20,000 a year — that will begin assembly in 2020.