Google’s Waymo to assemble autonomous vehicles in Detroit

In a blog post titled “Making Waymos in Motor City,” John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, the self-driving company spun off from Google’s autonomous vehicle project, announced Tuesday that those vehicles will be built in Detroit. The subsidiary of Google’s corporate parent, Alphabet Inc. will invest $13.6 million to lease and repurpose a currently idled American Axle & Manufacturing facility just north of downtown Detroit, on the campus of AAM’s headquarters. Krafcik said that the facility will be up and running by the middle of this year.

According to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., as reported by MLive, at least 100 jobs will be created, and as many as 400 people may eventually be employed there. Waymo has applied for and will be receiving an $8 million grant from the Michigan Business Development Program to help retrofit the factory. The Detroit Free Press reports that the building was last used to produce axles in 2012 and more recently was a sequencing center for an automotive vendor.

Waymo had previously said it was scouting out locations in southeast Michigan, prompting speculation that it might take over General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant, slated to end production next year, but that factory’s 4.1 million square feet of space is about 20 times what Waymo needs. Also, GM may not want to help Waymo get off the ground and compete with its own Cruise Automation autonomous vehicle operation. GM currently builds autonomous test vehicles based on the Chevy Bolt EV at its Orion Assembly Plant north of Detroit.

Waymo Firefly at sunset

When ready, Waymo’s first factory will produce Level 4 autonomous vehicles, which are one level below full autonomy. A L4 AV is capable of performing all driving functions, but only under certain conditions, and the driver still can take complete control if they wish. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan called the facility the “world’s first factory 100-percent-dedicated to the mass production of L4 autonomous vehicles.”

The Waymo CEO cited the Detroit area’s role as the center of the domestic automobile industry, its “strong talent base” for both engineering and manufacturing, and the need to start production right away as factors in choosing the factory location.

The Waymo AV factory will be the third new automotive assembly facility to be opened in southeast Michigan after decades of decline in the state’s manufacturing base. It follows the start of production of off-road four-by-fours at Mahindra’s Auburn Hills factory and Ford is spending $50 million on as yet unspecified dedicated AV assembly facility somewhere in the region.

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