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Waymo to Outfit its Driverless Vehicles in a Former Detroit Axle Factory

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【Summary】Waymo LLC, the subsidiary that spun out of Google’s early self-driving car project, is bringing jobs and manufacturing back to the Motor City. The Alphabet subsidiary is leasing space at Detroit's American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. campus to outfit Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar i-Pace electric SUVs with hardware for autonomous driving.

FutureCar Staff    Apr 23, 2019 2:39 PM PT
Waymo to Outfit its Driverless Vehicles in a Former Detroit Axle Factory
Waymo's vehicles will be outfitted for autonomous driving at the Detroit plant.

Waymo LLC, the subsidiary that spun out of Google's early self-driving car project, is bringing jobs and manufacturing back to the Motor City, the Detroit News reported. The Alphabet subsidiary is leasing space at Detroit's American Axle & Manufacturing campus to outfit Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar i-Pace electric SUVs with hardware for autonomous driving.

The $13.6 million investment could bring up to 400 jobs to the area.

Waymo said the facility will be the world's first factory 100 percent dedicated to the mass production of L4 (level-4) autonomous vehicles.

"Every year, more of your car is software," Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan told members of the news media Tuesday. "There has been a real risk that the shift of the automotive industry could move from Detroit to Silicon Valley, and we've been fighting that every step of the way.

"I think a major statement was made today in the battle of Detroit and Silicon Valley that a major Silicon Valley company has said the future of vehicles in the city of Detroit." he added.

It was a deal months in the making, Duggan said, crediting American Axle CEO David Dauch and Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert for making it happen.

Waymo CEO John Krafcik said in a blog post that the space is the "perfect facility", providing space up to 200,000 square feet to expand Waymo's operations. He also cited the region's talent. Waymo plans to hire local engineers, operations experts and fleet coordinators.

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer released a statement saying the decision "is continuing the city's momentum and further cementing Michigan as a leader in mobility and the epicenter of advanced automotive manufacturing."

The selection of the facility by Waymo follows the Michigan Economic Development Corp.'s approval of an $8 million performance-based grant for the project. The agreement required Waymo to sign a three-year lease in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne counties, and to open the facility with 100 employees by 2021, according to the Detroit News.

With over a decade of experience developing self-driving cars and the financial resources of its parent company Alphabet, Waymo is viewed as the industry leader in autonomous driving technology. The company's autonomous vehicles have driven over 10 million miles on public roads and billions more in computer simulation.

Waymo is preparing to launch a commercial ride-hailing service in Arizona using a fleet of self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs, which will be outfitted at the American Axle plant. The ride-hailing service is currently being tested with members of the public as part of Waymo's "Early Rider Program."

American Axle last made automotive axles at the plant in 2012 when it moved production to Mexico, but the company's business operations recently moved into the administrative portion of the building, freeing up space for Waymo to move in, the Detroit News said.

"We are excited to partner with Waymo and be a part of bringing future automotive technology to our Detroit Campus," Chris Son, American Axle's vice president of marketing and communications, said in a statement.

Gilbert said in a statement that Waymo's expansion affirms "Detroit's position as the start-up hub of the Midwest."

Waymo plans to buy up to 62,000 Pacifica Hybrids from Fiat Chrysler and 20,000 vehicles from Jaguar. The company has used Pacifica Hybrid minivans for the past three years to test its self-driving technology.

The Resurgence of Detroit as a Automotive Technology Hub

Detroit, once the center of the U.S. automotive industry, is slowly returning as a automotive technology hub now that automakers are partnering with Silicon Valley tech companies on electrification and autonomous driving technology.

Waymo opened a small technical center in Novi, Mich in 2016 to support testing its fleet in Michigan's wintery weather conditions.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV said in February that it intends to open Detroit's first new assembly plant in nearly three decades if the city can acquire the land for the project. The plan would reactivate an idled Mack II assembly plant on Detroit's east side and invest $4.5 billion into five other Michigan plants, creating about 6,500 new jobs in Metro Detroit according to the Detroit News.

Last year, Ford Motor Co. announced that its 1.2 million-square-foot Corktown campus, anchored by the former Michigan Central Railway Station, will be its center for electric and self-driving vehicles when it opens in 2022. Ford is spending $350 million to redevelop the crumbling structure, which was long viewed as a symbol of Detroit's economic decline when it closed in 1988.

"This time, this is Google and Silicon Valley who have said we are the best in the world at software, but when it comes to mechanical and manufacturing engineering to build cars, we need to be in Detroit." Mayor Duggan said.


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