Autos

Fiat Chrysler partners with Amazon-backed start-up Aurora on self-driving cars

Key Points
  • Fiat Chrysler said it wants to develop the technology for commercial customers, "at a time when changing lifestyles and online shopping patterns are creating logistical opportunities."
  • The announcement comes just days after the automaker's parent company broke off talks with Groupe Renault, a proposed "merger of equals."
  • Aurora is led by CEO Chris Urmson, who set up Google's self-driving unit that was later spun off as Waymo.
Source: Aurora

Fiat Chrysler is forming a partnership with autonomous vehicle start-up Aurora to develop self-driving vehicles for corporate clients.

"This would allow for a variety of customized solutions for commercial vehicle customers at a time when changing lifestyles and online shopping patterns are creating logistical opportunities," Fiat Chrysler said in a statement announcing the agreement.

That suggests a broad range of potential options including self-driving ride-hailing vehicles — such as the ones that the new Waymo One service is fielding in the Phoenix suburbs, as well as driverless delivery trucks.

Neither Aurora nor Fiat Chrysler would release financial details of their new partnership, but the start-up raised more than $530 million in a funding round led by Amazon in February. The retail giant has made several strategic investments over the past year focusing on autonomous technology, including as lead investor in a $700 million funding round for electric truck maker Rivian in February. Analysts have speculated Amazon is hoping to build a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles.

Aurora, which employs more than 200 at offices in Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, California, and San Francisco, is led by CEO Chris Urmson. He was one of the pioneers in the autonomous field and led a project set up by Alphabet unit Google until it was spun off as Waymo. Fiat Chrysler has also partnered with Waymo, becoming one of the lead vehicle suppliers to its ride-hailing service. Waymo One has plans to purchase more than 60,000 Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans and modify them at a new plant outside Detroit.

"Aurora brings a unique skillset combined with advanced and purposeful technology that complements and enhances our approach to self-driving," Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley said in a statement.

The announcement comes just days after the automaker broke off talks with Groupe Renault over a proposed "merger of equals" with which it hoped to gain access to the self-driving technology being developed by the French automaker's Japanese alliance partner Nissan. Fiat Chrysler has long dragged its feet on developing the self-driving vehicles that many industry observers expect to become commonplace over the next couple decades.

Sam Abuelsamid, of Navigant Research, and other analysts have previously faulted the Italian-American automaker for its go-slow approach to autonomous vehicle research in the past. It has only made marginal efforts on its own. One of the potential benefits it cited for merging with Renault was the access to the autonomous and electric vehicle technologies being developed by the French automaker and its ally Nissan.

Joint ventures are becoming a norm, rather than the exception in the increasingly high-tech automotive world. Early this year, Honda signed on as an investor in General Motors' Cruise Automation subsidiary. They also are partnered on a fuel-cell project. Last week, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover launched a partnership focused on battery-car technology, while Toyota and Subaru announced plans to jointly develop a new battery-electric vehicle platform.

Correction: Amazon was lead investor in a $700 million funding round for electric truck maker Rivian in February. An earlier version mischaracterized the investment and misstated the month. Last week, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover launched a partnership focused on battery-car technology. An earlier version misstated the timing.