Uber to open facility in metro Detroit

Michael Wayland

Novi — Uber Technologies Inc. will open a facility in metro Detroit to help it collaborate with automakers and suppliers in the area.

The move is the latest convergence of Silicon Valley and the Motor City, as partnerships grow in connection to companies competing to test and produce fleets of self-driving vehicles.

“Detroit is where the automotive industry has really developed — very, very strong talent base; very strong companies — and Uber wants to be part of that,” Uber vice president of Global Vehicle Programs Sherif Marakby said Monday morning at the SAE Convergence conference in Novi.

Marakby, a former Ford employee of 25 years, did not disclose the size, location or number of expected employees. He said the Silicon Valley company is still finalizing leasing for the facility, which is expected to open “in the coming months.”

Uber, he said, “is flexible” on the number of employees for the facility. He told The Detroit News after the announcement that the targeted facility would “accommodate many people” to integrate the self-driving technologies into vehicles.

“A lot of this talent could be at a very large number,” he said, adding its Pittsburgh location has grown to hundreds of employees since opening two years ago. “We don’t have any near-term restraint.”

The Detroit announcement comes less than a week after Uber launched 20 or so self-driving Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh. Uber purchased those vehicles from dealerships. That is not in line with the company’s long-term plans, Marakby said.

“The model for scale, for getting production, is not that,” he told The Detroit News after the announcement. “The model for scale is collaborating with the auto companies.” He added Uber “is not in the business of making cars.”

Uber and Volvo earlier this month announced a $300 million deal for the automaker to provide SUVs to Uber for autonomous vehicle research. The Volvo SUVs will be part of the self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh, which is expected to grow from 20 Ford Fusions to 100 by Christmas. He said similar announcements with other companies are expected soon.

Uber, according to Marakby, is talking with nearly every global automaker about partnerships. He declined to comment on the negotiations, however one likely partner is not General Motors Co., which invested $500 million in Lyft Inc., Uber’s largest competitor.

Marakby said metro Detroit could be a location for a future self-driving vehicle fleet, however it depends on proposed legislation about autonomous vehicles: “Positive legislation that allows technology companies like Uber to operate in Michigan will only help that,” he said. “We’re very much working with the state on that. We hope it’s going to be a positive result.”

A set of autonomous vehicle bills were passed by the Senate last week, however some have raised concerns about language in two of the bills that could limit a technology company’s roll in operating autonomous fleets in the Great Lakes State.

The bills, as passed by the Senate last week, define autonomous vehicle manufacturers to have “distributed motor vehicles” in the U.S. before being allowed to operate an autonomous ride-sharing business in Michigan. Google says some may interpret that to exclude companies such as the tech company because it does not currently sell vehicles.

John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, in a letter to the Michigan House Communications and Technology Committee last week, asked the committee to amend two self-driving bills to ensure the company could compete in the state.

“While the current bill coming out of the Senate may be suitable for traditional motor vehicle manufacturers, we are concerned that ambiguities in two of the definitions in SB 995 and SB 997 could be read to exclude other innovative AV (autonomous vehicle) technology companies such as Google from operating in the state,” Krafcik wrote in a letter released Tuesday.

State Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, who introduced the bills in the Senate, said they are working to address Google’s concerns and should be able to provide an update by the expected House hearing this week.

Google is a partner with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV to create a fleet of 100 self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Work is being done on that project from an office in Novi, which was announced in May.


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Twitter: @MikeWayland