As rivals from within and outside the automotive industry compete to bring autonomous vehicles to market, Waymo is preparing for mass production.
Waymo recently announced plans to mass produce self-driving cars at a factory in the iconic city of Detroit, where Henry Ford test drove his first automobile in 1896. Should everything go as planned, the technology firm could reach a milestone of nearly equal significance in automotive history. CEO John Krafcik said Waymo will partner with American Axle & Manufacturing, a maker of automotive components and systems, to lease and repurpose an existing facility. It is expected to be operational by the end of the year.
Of the many firms developing or preparing to develop self-driving cars, including tech startups, big technology firms and global automotive industry giants, Waymo is generally thought to be winning the race. It had a head start as one of Google’s projects in 2009, and currently operates a robo-taxi service in suburban Arizona, which it plans to expand geographically. Waymo became a stand-alone subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in 2016.
At this stage, mass production is the goal, and in this Waymo is competing with the likes of General Motors and Uber Technologies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to launch a robo-taxi service in 2020. Both GM and Ford have said they will build autonomous vehicles at factories in Michigan. There is plenty of enthusiasm to go around, although experts say it will be years before systems are ready to be rolled out in all areas.
Waymo’s robo-taxi fleet currently uses retrofitted Chrysler Pacifica minivans. In March 2018 the company said it intends to expand and diversify its fleet. It has already agreed to purchase 62,000 more Chrysler Pacifica hybrid minivans from Fiat Chrysler as well as 20,000 I-Pace electric vehicles from Jaguar Land Rover over the next few years.
Waymo said in January that its first production facility would be in Michigan, in part because it needs to test the firm’s automotive technology in inclement weather. As Reuters reports, Waymo will receive incentives from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, a public-private partnership agency. The agency said the new manufacturing operation will create at least 100 jobs and potentially up to 400 related to self-driving, including engineers, operations experts, fleet coordinators and others to retrofit vehicles with sensors, cameras and other self-driving automotive technology.