Pete Bigelow (Automotive News)
Monday, April 29, 2019
Last week, Waymo solidified its plans to establish an advanced manufacturing facility in the heart of Detroit, signing a multiyear lease on an idled American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. factory.
DETROIT — When Silicon Valley made its foray into autonomous and electric vehicles, there was a palpable fear in certain corners of Michigan that the state's primary economic engine would be usurped and carried away.
That hasn't materialized. If anything, companies in both locations have better recognized the value of each other's contributions to the overall industry.
Case in point: Last week, Waymo solidified its plans to establish an advanced manufacturing facility in the heart of Detroit, signing a multiyear lease on an idled American Axle & Manufacturing Inc. factory.
Starting as early as this summer, the Google subsidiary will use the refurbished facility to fit its self-driving systems onto base vehicles provided by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Waymo has partnered with Magna International Inc. to handle that work. At the outset, Magna is expected to hire about 100 employees. Eventually, they will also install the self-driving systems on Jaguar I-Pace EVs. Waymo says the factory could employ as many as 400 workers by 2024.
It remains unclear whether those workers will be represented by the UAW. Magna referred questions on the work force to Waymo; a company spokesperson said last week that Waymo is in the early stages of determining the makeup of its team and would share more information later.
‘Master of mobility'
Regardless, the company's intention to invest as much as $13.6 million in capital improvements and reopen a factory that closed seven years ago was welcomed and trumpeted by a chorus of elected officials and civic leaders.
How those traditional work force strengths are harnessed and adapted for the likes of Waymo and others who follow remains an open question. In January, the Detroit Mobility Lab created the Michigan Mobility Institute, a brick-and-mortar education institution that aims to offer academic, professional, executive and skilled-trades programs to develop local talent in the fledgling advanced-vehicle and mobility fields.
Developed along with to-be-named university partners, the institute aims to start offering a "master of mobility" degree in 2021. Part of its purpose it to ensure Detroit's global relevance and leadership in the advanced-transportation realm.
Even so, the institute views the city's relationship with Silicon Valley as one that's more symbiotic than contentious.
Waymo's expansion in southeast Michigan — it has maintained a testing facility in Novi, west of Detroit, since 2017 — is an example of that.
"This sparks this Detroit-versus-Silicon Valley debate again, and I think that's a red herring and false narrative," said Jessica Robinson, executive director of the institute. "As a region, we need to think about what we want to be, focus our sights on that and execute well, rather than worry about what's happening in other places."
Self-driving vehicles emerging from the refurbished American Axle factory will be used in Waymo One, the commercial ride-hailing service launched in December in the Phoenix area. At least for now, those vehicles will have human safety drivers behind the wheel, and service is limited to preapproved riders.
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