Waymo, one of the leading forces in self-driving technology, is enlisting the largest auto retailer in the United States, AutoNation, to maintain and repair the growing number of driverless vehicles Waymo is testing around the country.
No financial terms were disclosed. But the partnership suggests Waymo — a unit of Google’s parent, Alphabet — is moving a step closer to putting driverless vehicles into ride-hailing fleets that would serve the general public, not just its own employees and others selected by the company to test them.
“AutoNation will help assure that Waymo vehicles are always in top condition as we bring fully self-driving cars to the public,” John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive, said in a statement.
Mr. Krafcik recently hinted that Waymo was further along in commercializing its self-driving technology than previously indicated. “We’re really close,” he told reporters at a demonstration of Waymo’s driverless vehicles at Castle, its test center on a former Air Force base in Northern California.
Maintaining expensive and technology-packed self-driving vehicles is a main challenge for using them in moneymaking businesses, like ride-hailing fleets, said Michael J. Jackson, AutoNation’s chief executive. In most cases, driverless vehicles in such fleets will have to be on the road almost around the clock to offset the cost of the sensors, computer chips, software and other systems that allow them to drive safely and reach their destinations without human operators, he said.
“These vehicles need to be in service for hundreds of thousands of miles, much more than personal-use vehicles, to make them economically viable,” he said. “To do that, you have to do much more proactive, preventative maintenance than what a normal person would do on a car.”