CHANDLER, Ariz. — When Waymo began planning a pilot project involving hundreds of self-driving vehicles, some of the company’s leading executives and operations staff headed to the airport.
They weren’t going on a trip, but a scouting mission. They wanted to learn how airlines performed maintenance, loaded baggage, fueled aircraft and cleaned cabins all while minimizing time at the gate.
“We got to see some of the full aircraft turnarounds and what all they do before the planes go back out,” said Rikard Grunnan, head of technical fleet operations at Waymo. “There’s so many different vendors. From a high level, we could see how those interactions worked from a command center, people flowing through aircraft and doing their part within a specific time frame.”
Inside the company’s Phoenix-area operational hub in a nondescript warehouse here, Waymo has been replicating its findings as it operates a fleet of more than 400 vehicles, dozens of which are parked in two neat rows on a recent afternoon.
First lesson: Waymo is not trying to do it alone. Since November 2017, Waymo has partnered with AutoNation, the nation’s largest automotive retailer, which sends technicians to maintain and service Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Now, both companies say their relationship is deepening.
This year, Waymo will open an 85,000- square-foot technical operations center in Mesa, on the opposite end of the company’s service area from the Chandler hub. The center will more than double Waymo’s operational footprint, and technicians from both companies will be based there.
The companies also have connected their information technology departments to provide more insightful data about maintenance across the fleet, and AutoNation is developing a customized digital platform for Waymo that will speed vehicle repairs in Arizona and California. A pilot project involving the new platform will begin in weeks.
For all the focus on developing artificial intelligence and the advanced technology that underpins self-driving systems, wringing efficiencies from fleet operations and minimizing vehicle downtime while performing regular maintenance and cleaning the occasional spill will be just as important — albeit far more mundane — for business success.
And for all the uncertainty about the role of car dealerships in a future in which ridership may be more prevalent than ownership, Waymo and AutoNation are providing a glimpse of what could be an essential dealership role.
“We want to be aggressive,” said Rob Meder, vice president of customer care at AutoNation, which has a brick-and-mortar footprint in 16 states.
“The landscape is changing with electric vehicles and self-driving cars. How long it’s going to take and exactly where it’s going, no one knows. But we want to be part of that evolving landscape.”
That involves melding data from both companies.
Grunnan says a handful of Pacificas are on the road racking up many more miles than the rest of the Phoenix-area fleet. Waymo wants to see what happens when vehicles are pushed beyond 250,000 miles, and figure out which parts are prone to breaking at certain mileage milestones. Meanwhile, AutoNation is supplying maintenance information from its Chrysler dealerships.
“We’ve downloaded a lot of analytics for Pacifica vans,” Meder said. “We had a lot more than we thought we would have, and that information is gold for trying to figure out the maintenance cadence and being preemptive on repairs.”
As Waymo adds the Jaguar I-Pace electric vehicle to its lineup — the I-Pace is entering testing now, but won’t be part of the company’s Waymo One commercial service until early next year — AutoNation will play a similar role. The company owns more than 30 Jaguar Land Rover dealerships, and can feed maintenance data into Waymo’s operations.
Increasingly, AutoNation is being called upon to handle more complex work for Waymo. When the partnership began, the retailer provided oil changes and its technicians performed warranty repairs at their centers. Now, AutoNation’s technicians visit Waymo’s operations hub four days a week and spend approximately six hours each day doing everything from cleaning vehicles to replacing transmissions.
Having AutoNation technicians work in the Waymo hub has reduced vehicle downtime, and that’s one reason the companies will have technicians working under one roof when the Mesa center opens. Eventually, that work will include AutoNation employees cleaning and calibrating sensors on self-driving systems.
“They’ll do more sensitive work with the self-driving technology, and have their own dedicated space, with tire racks and parts inventory on-site, so it will truly be a one-stop shop,” said Grunnan, who has managed Waymo’s fleet for seven-and-a-half years.
AutoNation has added a “Waymo certification” to its wage grid for technicians, and Meder says roughly 20 mechanics are certified to work on Waymo vehicles in the company’s operations hub.
Elsewhere, AutoNation dealerships can provide “pit-stop services,” when cars encounter trouble on the road. Dealerships in California and Washington have filled that role for Waymo vehicles.
As the company’s self-driving ambitions grow and service launches in new locations, AutoNation’s national brick-and-mortar footprint may provide a valuable operational backbone.
“When you see it at scale like this, you understand there’s a lot of infrastructure required and it’s a manual process to keep a fleet this size on the road at all hours,” Grunnan said. “Finding someone with infrastructure around the country and expertise with new and used cars, they’ve turned out to be a wonderful fit.” A must-read for automotive industry engineering and business professionals. This white paper starts with the evolution and complexities of connected and autonomous vehicles. It then maps out the cybersecurity landscape and looks at principles for security implementation, including discovery of unknown vehicle behavioral trends and multi-layer-based security design. A case study is presented and the paper rounds off with a brief view on the future of automotive security. This document was written in conjunction with Irdeto’s partner, SafeRide.