Waymo wants to build self-driving cars right in the backyard of Detroit’s Big Three. In a blog post by the Google spinoff, it announced that it had received permission from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to build a factory in the state. However, Waymo may not build cars from scratch.
While Waymo develops its autonomous-driving systems in-house, it buys vehicles from existing automakers to use as test beds. The company’s current fleet is primarily comprised of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans, and Waymo is adding the Jaguar I-Pace as well. In its announcement, Waymo indicated that the new factory will primarily focus on adding the necessary hardware and software for autonomous driving to these vehicles.
Waymo previously operated the Firefly, a small electric car designed in-house. But the company now believes the best way to commercialize autonomous-driving tech is to create a complete system that can be added to existing vehicles. Making cars is an expensive and complicated business, so it makes sense for Waymo to leave that job to established automakers.
The choice of Michigan for Waymo’s factory also makes sense. Michigan is the home of the United States’ auto industry, and Waymo already has a presence there. Engineers outfit Pacifica minivans with autonomous-driving systems, and Waymo conducts winter testing in Novi, near Detroit.
Waymo claims its Michigan factory will be the first manufacturing facility 100-percent dedicated to Level 4 self-driving cars. On the SAE autonomy scale, Level 4 vehicles can drive themselves without human intervention, but still have backup manual controls and may require a human driver to take over in some situations. That perfectly describes Waymo’s current fleet of test cars.
Waymo doesn’t have much competition in the race to scale up manufacturing for self-driving cars. All autonomous cars currently on the road are prototypes based on production cars, with modifications made on a small scale. General Motors does add autonomous-driving hardware for its Chevrolet Bolt EV test cars on the same assembly line that builds the regular Bolt EV, but other companies haven’t taken up that practice yet.
It’s unclear when Waymo’s facility will be up and running. Waymo said it’s looking for a site in Southeast Michigan and promises that the factory will eventually create “hundreds” of jobs.
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