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Waymo Self-Driving Vehicle Plant Goes Online in Detroit

The roughly 200,000-square-foot facility allows the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary to outfit vehicles with driverless technology at mass scale. The company signed a three-year lease and agreed to hire 100 employees by 2021.

(TNS) — Not only is Detroit building vehicles people can drive, but now it is producing vehicles that can drive themselves.

John Krafcik, CEO of Google self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC, said Monday that its Detroit plant is operating and outfitting fleets of vehicles with its autonomous driving hardware and software. The milestone allows the Alphabet Inc. subsidiary to put its automated "driver" into vehicles at mass scale. Doing so will help Waymo, an acknowledged leader in the self-driving space, to test its technology and expand its robotaxi service.

"We've just opened the world's first dedicated autonomous plant," Krafcik said during an interview at Forbes Under 30 Summit at the Masonic Temple. "We call it a factory."

In April, Waymo said it was leasing and would repurpose a plant owned by American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. on its Detroit headquarters campus bordering Hamtramck. The $14 million investment puts the Silicon Valley tech company at the center of the North American hub for automakers, suppliers and engineering talent. It also sits across the Detroit River from the Windsor assembly plant that produces Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans it uses in its self-driving fleet.

But at least initially the Detroit factory is focusing on integrating Waymo's fifth-generation driver technology with the help of Canadian auto supplier Magna International Inc. into the electric Jaguar I-PACE SUVs, which come from Austria. The factory has outfitted 30 vehicles that are now in California for development and testing.

The facility, which provides up to 200,000 square feet of space, opened this past summer, a Waymo spokeswoman said. Krafcik announced it was up and running Sept. 12 at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany.

It was unclear how many people Waymo so far had hired. Terms of an agreement for an $8 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Co required Waymo to sign a three-year lease and open the facility with 100 employees by 2021, eventually growing its workforce here to 400. It was looking for engineers, operations experts and fleet coordinators.

Waymo has contracts to buy up to 62,000 Pacifica Hybrids from Fiat Chrysler and 20,000 vehicles from Jaguar. The Silicon Valley company has used Pacifica Hybrid vans the past three years to test its self-driving system.

Waymo's technology, which most visibly can be seen on top of the vehicles, includes a new sensor kit developed in-house with light-detection LIDAR, radar, cameras and one other sensor modality that Waymo has not disclosed publicly, Krafcik said. A computer package also sits in the trunk.

"JLR sends us this car in a mode that is ready to accept an easy integration of the Waymo driver," said Krafcik, a former Hyundai Motors Co. executive and Ford Motor Co. engineer. "There's not a lot in assembly or content. ... It's a relatively straightforward process to insert the Waymo driver into the Jaguar I-PACE."

The vehicles made in Detroit eventually will be put to work in Waymo's self-driving robotaxi fleet called Waymo One. The service launched in December in Phoenix to a few hundred customers.

Additionally, Waymo is developing a trucking application for its technology on 18-wheelers from Paccar Inc.'s Peterbilt Motors Co. The company has demonstrated and tested its technology on them in Arizona, Atlanta and California.

"We're not a car company," Krafcik said. "We're not a self-driving car company either. Our mission is to build the world's most experienced driver."

Although Waymo hopes to expand its robotaxi services to cities other than Phoenix, Krafcik said, it is open to serving other locations around the world with other partners that wouldn't necessarily be a Waymo-branded service. The company also is working with automakers, he said, for the possibility of personal-use buyers.

The problem with that, though, is car buyers may hold onto their vehicles so that their driving technology becomes outdated, Krafcik said. He sees the solution to that is a subscription service or a personal-use vehicle that would later join a fleet service.

"You know there are going to be lots of innovations both in the hardware and software side to keep that car driving as well as other cars in the market might be," he said.

Waymo also has an office in Ann Arbor and a small technical center in Novi that opened in 2016 to test its fleet in Michigan's winter weather conditions.

Waymo's factory joins a number of other sites in Detroit leading the way in the automotive sector to electric and autonomous vehicles. General Motors Co.'s new contract with the United Auto Workers says the Detroit automaker will invest $3 billion to save the nearby Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant to build electric trucks, electric vans and battery modules.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is investing $1.6 billion into the city's first new assembly plant in nearly 30 years on Detroit's east side. There, it will build combustion engine and plug-in hybrid Jeeps and eventually electric ones, too. And Ford's $740 million 1.2 million-square-foot Corktown campus anchored by Michigan Central Depot will be its center for developing electric and self-driving innovations.

©2019 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.