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Waymo Is Repurposing a Large-Scale Detroit Factory to Build Self-Driving Cars

This move places Waymo directly in the territory of Detroit's "Big Three" automakers: Fiat Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors.

Waymo will repurpose a Detroit factory to build self-driving cars, bringing futuristic autonomous-driving technology to the heart of the United States auto industry. In a blog post, the Google spinoff said this will be the first factory that’s 100-percent dedicated to autonomous cars.

The company announced plans for a Michigan factory in January, eventually settling on a facility currently owned by American Axle and Manufacturing. Waymo said it would work with American Axle to repurpose the facility for self-driving cars, with plans to get it up and running by mid-2019. Waymo will likely fit existing cars with autonomous-driving hardware, rather than build them from scratch. The Chrysler Pacifica minivans that currently make up the majority of Waymo’s fleet are built across the river from Detroit in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. 

Waymo did experiment with a self-built electric car, the Firefly, but now buys all of its vehicles from existing automakers. Waymo previously said it would buy 62,000 Pacifica minivans and 20,000 Jaguar I-Pace electric crossovers to convert into autonomous vehicles. The company currently operates a commercial ride-hailing service, but only in the Phoenix metropolitan area.

The cars rolling out of Waymo’s Detroit factory will be SAE Level 4, according to the company. That means they will be capable of driving themselves, but will still have backup manual controls and may require a human driver to take over in certain situations—just like Waymo’s current fleet of test cars, in other words.

The Waymo facility is located next to General Motors’ Detroit-Hamtramck factory, which is at risk of being shuttered. The GM factory was put on the chopping block in late 2018 along with several other North American factories. In early 2019, GM announced that the Hamtramck factory would stay open until January 2020 to continue building the Cadillac CT6 and Chevrolet Impala, although production of the Chevrolet Volt and Buick LaCrosse was terminated.

GM currently fits Chevrolet Bolt EV electric cars with semi-autonomous-driving hardware on the same Orion Township, Michigan, assembly line that builds the cars themselves. That is expected to continue, and Ford is expected to build self-driving cars in Michigan as well. The state offers the existing resources that have built up around the Detroit Three automakers, a government that has encouraged the deployment of self-driving cars, and universities and other entities conducting relevant research.