John Krafcik, CEO of Waymo, last week said that its Detroit plant is now in operation. Waymo is busily outfitting fleets of Chrysler Pacifica plug-in hybrids with self-driving tech. It’s a big step toward realizing traditional automakers’ greatest fear: getting reduced to being just a hardware provider.
“We’ve just opened the world’s first dedicated autonomous plant,” Krafcik said during an interview with Detroit News at the Forbes Under 30 Summit in Detroit. “We call it a factory.” He first announced those plant operations were under way on September 12 at the Frankfurt Motor Show.
Connect these dots. Waymo’s plant repurposes the 200,000-square-foot facility formerly used by American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings Inc. That plant is about 10 miles away from where the Chrysler Pacifica is produced in Windsor, Canada.
Now draw a line between those two plants, and go seven miles east. You’ll hit the Mack Avenue Engine Complex, where Fiat-Chrysler is investing $4.5 billion to produce electric versions of Jeep vehicles.
This starts to look like a Bermuda triangle for autonomy, where factories previously producing engines and axles are now making electric and autonomous vehicles for use in shared robo-taxi fleets.
The Waymo facility, with help from supplier Magna, has so far turned perhaps a few dozen Jaguar I-Pace electric cars into self-driving test vehicles, with about 20,000 units on order. But that’s small potatoes compared to the Waymo contract to buy 62,000 Pacifica plug-in hybrids.
Chrysler and Jaguar sell a fraction of those numbers to individual buyers in its dealerships. In effect, we’re witnessing the automakers’ worst nightmare come true as they become hardware suppliers to a Silicon Valley tech giant. The alliances between General Motors with Cruise and Ford with Argo have similar undertones. Readers should chime in with comments about how each partnership is different.
It’s too early to say how the merger between PSA and FCA could affect these developments. Perhaps it will accelerate EV production for what would become the world’s fourth-largest automaker.
Google started its self-driving program with its Firefly bubble-pod car, but that doesn’t work to haul people in an autonomous taxi. The Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid seats seven and has the most abundant total interior space in the minivan market. It provides 33 miles of all-electric range and is rated at the equivalent of 88 miles per gallon. The Pacifica plug-in hybrid is Waymo’s primary testing vehicle across the United States.
With Waymo now in operation, a 20-mile square area between Detroit and Windsor is starting to look like the front lines of a massive shift toward electrification and autonomy. It’s also a threat to the existing internal-combustion, private-car regime.
It’s kind of a good thing for electrification because it elevates electric-vehicle production for also-ran EV makers like Fiat-Chrysler and Jaguar-Landrover. The shift also repurposes shuttered factories and restores jobs that were lost. The role of EVs was a hot topic during the recent GM strikes, with electric cars often characterized as a boogeyman for workers.
Unfortunately, Waymo vehicle production could also shift the role of OEMs from consumer brands to Tier 1 suppliers of electric-vehicle platforms. Of course, the automakers could also see the writing on the wall when it comes to electrification and start pumping more energy into truly competitive vehicles that humans want to own and drive.
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