Robot car factory to bring as many as 400 jobs to southeast Michigan
Waymo says it plans to have a factory to produce robot cars in southeast Michigan.
The company, which was formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project, said it aims to create hundreds of jobs in the process.
“Waymo will first identify a facility in southeast Michigan and, over the next few years, aim to create hundreds of local jobs in the community. We’ll be looking for engineers, operations experts and fleet coordinators to join our team and help assemble and deploy our self-driving cars,” the company said in an online post provided to the Free Press.
Otie McKinley, a spokesman for the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said the Michigan Strategic Fund board approved the Waymo project unanimously Tuesday.
Waymo, which is a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent, had requested an $8-million Michigan Business Development Program grant, according to an MEDC memo, which noted that Waymo had discussions with a number of other states as possible locations for the project.
The Michigan Business Development Program “is funded by general fund dollars appropriated to the MSF by the state Legislature and administered by the MEDC,” according to McKinley.
That memo said the project involves the creation of at least 100 jobs with the potential for 400 total jobs and a capital investment of up to $13.6 million.
“The company is looking for up to 200,000 square feet of ready-to-go, light manufacturing facility space to support its capacity expansion plans,” the memo said.
Waymo already has a facility with about 20 employees in the Novi area and has a partnership with Fiat Chrysler to build Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Windsor for its self-driving fleet.
A spokeswoman, Alexis Georgeson, said that Waymo plans to move into the space by the middle of this year, and that the company is not abandoning its current FCA partnership.
“Waymo develops hardware and software in-house so that our full self-driving technology works as a seamless, single system. A vital part of that process is integrating our self-driving system into the vehicles we purchase for our fleet, including Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Jaguar Land Rover. Integration of the Waymo Driver will happen at our new Michigan facility with our existing (automaker) partners and vehicles,” Georgeson said.
The company said the southeast Michigan location “will be the world’s first factory 100 percent-dedicated to the mass production of L4 autonomous vehicles.”
‘Excellent snowy conditions’
It also referenced its ongoing work in Michigan.
“The Great Lakes State is one we already know and love, with a talented workforce and excellent snowy conditions for our cars to test. Our local engineers are already hard at work outfitting our Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans with Waymo technology, and now we’re looking forward to expanding our roots,” the company said.
The news of the planned investment was cheered by Michigan’s governor, who touted the state’s assets in the process.
“Michigan is at the forefront of innovation in automotive design and development, and high-tech auto companies continue to realize the invaluable assets that Michigan has to offer: high-tech engineering resources, top-notch research and design and a highly skilled workforce,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, also weighed in.
“This is great news and it really builds on the fact that we in Michigan will be the leaders in autonomous vehicle technology. I think there are many more opportunities for us in terms of new kinds of jobs moving forward,” Stabenow said.
U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, said the project is an opportunity for the state.
“Today’s announcement that Waymo is planning to expand its autonomous vehicle program in southeast Michigan, creating hundreds of new jobs in the process, is fantastic news for our region,” Stevens said Tuesday. “This is a historic opportunity for Michigan to demonstrate how our best-in-class workforce will continue to keep the U.S. at the forefront of global innovation.”
With General Motors’ expected closure of the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant this year, an extra 4.1 million square feet of manufacturing space could be available, although that footprint exceeds what Waymo said it is seeking.
Brian Rothenberg, a spokesman for the UAW, was asked for a comment on the possibility that Detroit-Hamtramck might be suitable or if it’s something the union would support.
“Our focus is to leave no stone unturned to keep the Hamtramck plant open,” Rothenberg said.
A long way to go
GM spokesman Pat Morrissey was also asked for comment, but he said that “any discussion on the status of the plant beyond the build-out of the current products is a matter discussed in UAW-GM negotiations.”
Automakers and tech companies have committed billions of dollars in hopes of gaining advantage in the race to develop self-driving vehicles. Proponents say the technology will transform transportation by reducing traffic crashes and providing new mobility options.
Critics warn, however, that its abilities to date have been oversold. Even John Krafcik, Waymo’s chief executive officer, has noted that the technology has a ways to go.
In November, CNET reported that Krafcik said he does not think the driverless car industry will ever be able to drive at any time of year in any condition.
“Autonomy always will have some constraints,” Krafcik said, according to CNET, noting that humans can also have difficulty in certain conditions.
The current announcement, however, reinforces the point of view that Michigan is a great region for the next phase of mobility. For one, Krafcik, who at one time worked for Ford, is familiar with Michigan’s automotive industry and “the ecosystem here,” said Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, associate director for the University of Michigan Energy Institute. For this reason, Waymo knows the importance of taking advantage of the assets and people in Michigan as the world transitions to robot cars.
Also, to build electric cars — experts say self-driving vehicles are most likely to be electric or hybrids — requires a smaller plant footprint compared with the space needed to build a gasoline vehicle, meaning a self-driving car company such as Waymo can “invest in people and capital here at a cost-effective rate.”
Finally, the idea that Silicon Valley is the center of the technology world is changing, some experts say. In fact, Michigan has plenty of technology and autonomous development already popping up. Take Rivian, the Michigan-based startup Rivian plans to launch an all-electric pickup. Last year, Rivian bought an old Mitsubishi plant in central Illinois to build the pickups.
“We can make Michigan a living laboratory as we evolve to this new mobility,” Hughes-Cromwick said. “If you think all of this will go to California, that is an (expensive) home base for this stuff.”
She said it is crucial that Michigan leaders “seize the opportunity” to get investment dollars flowing to the region.
Local officials noted that they expect Waymo’s expanded presence in the region to boost the overall economy.
“You’re looking at a vehicle that is mostly built in Windsor — the Pacifica — but it needs a lot of modifications, so you’ll need a highly skilled workforce,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto.
MICHauto is the statewide automotive industry association and a strategic initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber. The memo from the MEDC noted that MICHauto had offered to provide Waymo with a one-year, $25,000 investor membership in the MICHauto community.
Stevens said he has been working with Waymo on the expansion and described the company as a “good corporate citizen” with its existing presence in Novi.
“The industry is not in California,” Stevens said. “There is no tool and die industry in California. Tesla’s tool and dies, for example, are mostly built in Grand Rapids. Why not build a new type of mobility in Michigan? We’ve been building things for so long, we know how to do it.”
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