Waymo Retires Iconic “Firefly” Vehicles

Google’s self-driving car company Waymo is retiring its iconic “Firefly” self-driving vehicles from testing fleets after three years in service. The Firefly, which were widely known as “the koala cars,” are being replaced by Waymo’s expanding fleet of Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrid autonomous minivans. This transition comes as Waymo moves toward commercial availability, including an “early rider program” in Phoenix, Arizona.

Google has been working on self-driving cars since 2009, but the 2014 reveal of the Firefly was a turning point for both Waymo and autonomous drive technology generally. Still one of the only purpose-designed autonomous vehicles ever driven on public roads, the Firefly was designed without a typical driver seat or human controls. An early origami conceptual study demonstrates the post-car values of the design, which emphasizes a living room-style seating arrangement with no clear “driver’s seat.” The Firefly’s distinctively un-car-like design is famous for causing derangement in the more traditional corners of the automotive media.

From day one, the Firefly has been a testbed for experimentation. Google’s first autonomous test vehicles were Toyotas and Lexuses, which were designed as cars and converted to autonomous drive. The Firefly provided Waymo’s designers with a clean sheet of paper that allowed it to experiment with sensor placement and a variety of control schemes.

But the only way Waymo could put a vehicle with no standardized human control scheme on the road was by classifying it as a low-speed vehicle, specifically a Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. This regulatory category gave Waymo the leeway to not comply with strict Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for full-speed vehicles, but also limited the Firefly to 25 MPH and streets with speed limits no higher than 35 mph.

These limits weren’t a problem for testing, but with Waymo now making autonomous rides available to its early rider program the Firefly is heading for retirement. The iconic cars will be on display at a number of museums, including the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix, The Thinkery in Austin, TX as well as the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA and the Design Museum in London, England.

Waymo’s official blog post announcing the retirement of the Firefly can be found here.