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Fiat Chrysler Chief Sees Self-Driving Technology in Five Years

Fiat Chrysler Chief Sees Self-Driving Technology in Five Years

LONDON: WINDSOR, Ontario In the last year, Sergio Marchionne took a few test rides in Google’s self-driving car, and he came away impressed with the speed. But it is the breathtaking pace at which the technology is advancing, not how fast the car travels, that has really grabbed his attention.

“Each time it got better and better,” said Mr. Marchionne, the chief executive of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which is now collaborating with Google. “It isn’t pie in the sky. People are talking about 20 years. I think we will have it in five years.”

Mr. Marchionne was speaking at the auto company’s plant here, which is starting to make a new minivan, the Pacifica. Under the partnership unveiled this week, Fiat Chrysler will make about 100 modified Pacificas that Google will outfit with sensors and computers it has developed. The two companies will put together a joint engineering team, based in Michigan, to hone the technology.

In his first public comments on Fiat Chrysler’s agreement with the tech giant, Mr. Marchionne acknowledged it was unclear how far their collaboration will go, or how they will share the results of their work.

“We are approaching this in a completely open-ended fashion,” he said. “We need to get to a stage where the car is viable so we can discuss the spoils of that work. We are not there yet.”

Others in the industry are also rushing to put autonomous vehicles on the road in real-world situations.

General Motors and Lyft, the ride-hailing start-up valued at $4.5 billion, intend to test a fleet of self-driving taxis in an American city as soon as within a year, according to a person who has been briefed on the two companies’ plans. That would most likely begin using the technology inside the battery-powered Chevrolet Bolt, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about unannounced initiatives.

G.M. and Lyft formed a partnership in January and said they planned to introduce “an on-demand autonomous network” of self-driving vehicles. A spokesman from G.M. and a Lyft spokeswoman declined to offer additional details about their plans.

News of the taxi tests was reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal.

Until now, Fiat Chrysler had said little about its autonomous car plans. Mr. Marchionne spent much of 2015 focused not on vehicles of the future but on shaking up how cars are made today. In a blunt presentation he called “Confessions of a Capital Junkie,” he suggested the auto industry was headed for a crisis unless companies consolidated and stopped wasting billions of dollars to develop engines and other components that customers never touch.

He then tried, without success, to persuade General Motors or other automakers to enter merger talks.

Some analysts were skeptical of the agreement with Google.

“They are providing Google with 100 minivans, which is great, but there’s not necessarily a lot of ongoing collaboration,” said Karl Brauer, an analyst at the research firm Kelley Blue Book. “So it remains to be seen how much work they actually do together.”

Other carmakers like Ford Motor and Audi have made no secret of spending millions of dollars to create driverless cars, usually with the idea of heading off any competitive threat that could come from driverless cars being developed by Google and its Silicon Valley rival, Apple. Some have tried to recast themselves as “mobility companies” that will provide the means of moving people around, whether by cars they own, rent or hail via an app.

On Friday, Mr. Marchionne said the mobility concept was a “lofty ideal.”

He also said he was not imagining a merger with Google, although he was counting on the tech giant to help Fiat Chrysler catch up in driverless car technology. “We will be walking in a collaborative fashion with them at their speed,” he said. “We are exploring with them to allow us into their world.”

He also said that rival automakers working on their own autonomous cars, in competition with Google, were taking a risk that their investments may not pan out.

“It’s too early in this process to make the call who is going to end up with the winning solution,” Mr. Marchionne said. “Precluding development with others is a very dangerous bet.”