NuTonomy Switches to Chrysler For More Elbow Room in Self-Driving Cars

There’s a time in a self-driving car company’s life where a minivan is just more sensible than a sleek, European city car.

NuTonomy, the autonomous vehicle startup spun out of MIT that’s putting its systems through their paces on the streets of South Boston, says it has “decommissioned” its fleet of five-door, “supermini” electric cars manufactured by French automaker Renault under the brand name Zoe, according to a quarterly update the startup filed with the city of Boston. NuTonomy has been testing the vehicles on the city streets since January 2017.

“The Zoe vehicle platform, with significant customizations, has performed all of our autonomous testing in Boston to date,” the company writes. “However, as our engineering and design teams evaluated the technology requirements and customer needs in a fully autonomous vehicle, it became clear that the Zoe could not meet all of the criteria.”

The startup, which was snatched up by Aptiv (NYSE:APTV) in October 2017 for at least $400 million, has turned to a more family-friendly domestic automobile to outfit with all the bells and whistles (and sensors and control machinery) to run its driverless technology: the Chrysler Pacifica.

“We believe this new vehicle platform will enable our team to operate AVs more safely, more efficiently, and more comfortably,” NuTonomy says in the report for the city.

The startup says it chose the roomier Pacifica because it has more passenger space, the minivan is available in the US, and the model has better mounting options for sensors and computers.

It’s unclear whether NuTonomy’s decision to move to the larger vehicle is a sign that it’s leaning into its programs to provide rides through ride-hailing service Lyft (NASDAQ: LYFT), which NuTonomy launched in Boston in late 2017 and in Las Vegas in mid-2018.

Xconomy has reached out to Aptiv for more information about the vehicle change and will update this story if it comes in.

Picking the Pacifica aligns NuTonomy with its competitor Waymo, previously Google’s self-driving car project. Waymo has been working with Chrysler since 2016 on a vehicle outfitted with sensors and recently announced plans to order as many as 62,000 of the Pacificas for its  ride-hailing service.

In the quarterly update, NuTonomy says it tested its vehicles on streets of the Seaport in South Boston and on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Initially, the company’s testing was limited to portions of the Seaport. But in June 2018, Boston officials gave NuTonomy permission to test its fleet throughout the entire city, citing the company’s clean safety record.

In February, NuTonomy alerted city officials overseeing the self-driving car program that solar glare and the low evening sun during the winter had made it difficult for its vehicle software to see traffic signals.

Brian Dowling is a Senior Editor at Xconomy, based in Boston. You can reach him at bdowling [at] xconomy.com. Follow @be_d

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