Waymo Announces Plans to Build Self-Driving Cars in Detroit

One of the leaders in autonomous vehicle technology has decided to mass produce the next generation of automobiles in the city where large-scale production of affordable cars got its start.

by / April 24, 2019

The original Motor City is emerging as a leader in the next chapter in auto development.

Waymo, formerly the self-driving car project launched by Google, announced it will locate its mass production of level 4 autonomous vehicle technology in Detroit. The company will partner with American Axle and Manufacturing to rehab an existing facility for assembling the new high-tech cars.

Level 4 is known as “high automation” where the car can function without a driver in a number of situations, such as highway driving. Level 5, also called “full automation,” allows the car to operate in all conditions.

Many cars today include level 2 automation, which includes driver assist technologies, such as backup cameras or blind-spot warning systems.

Waymo has been moving quickly in the development of self-driving cars. It has been involved with testing the technology on city streets in the Phoenix metro region and was granted permission by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test the cars on public roadways in the state.

In October 2018, Waymo grabbed headlines when one of its self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans was involved in a collision, which Waymo says was actually caused by the backup driver who took control of the van at the time.

The move to step up manufacturing of AVs in Detroit has been praised by local and state officials who say the region is poised to be an industry leader in the robot car space.

“Today’s announcement by Waymo shows that the city of Detroit remains at the center of the future of the auto industry,” said Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan in a statement. “Waymo could have located the world’s first 100 percent dedicated Level 4 autonomous vehicle factory anywhere.”

It’s still not entirely known when self-driving cars could be rolling off the assembly line, but the topic is consuming a significant amount of conversation as cities plan for a connected vehicle future. The issue is also raising alarms among industry watchers who want to ensure the technology is safe before it's released to the masses.

“Part of the challenge in this equation is there’s not enough transparency for us to truly know where some of the companies are in the testing process,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “What they’re submitting are essentially glossy brochures to NTHSA [National Traffic and Highway Safety Administration] bragging about what they’ve accomplished.

“And let me just say, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety have always been very pro-technology, and we want to see autonomous vehicles succeed. We just want to make sure that the process is done safely and there’s not beta testing, which endangers the motorists on the roads,” she added.

AVs are often touted as a potential cure for some of the 40,000 annual motor vehicle deaths that occur in the United States every year. Policymakers and others shouldn’t get too caught up in the hype that naturally surrounds an accident involving an autonomous car, said Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs at Audi of America, speaking earlier this month at the Smart Cities Connect Conference and Expo in Denver.

“If we can reduce that number by 50 percent — some people, experts, have said we could get it down to 90 percent — that is a massive win for society,” said Reed.

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.