Ford Flat Rock plant shifts to electric vehicles, Mustang

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News
Ford plans to build upcoming vehicles on its battery-electric architecture at its Flat Rock Assembly Plant starting in 2023.

Ford Motor Co. on Wednesday said it would again change plans for where it would build its future electric and autonomous vehicles.

The Dearborn-based automaker plans to build upcoming vehicles on its battery-electric architecture at its Flat Rock Assembly Plant starting in 2023, where it will also build the next-generation Mustang. Ford's first purpose-built production autonomous vehicles will be finished at an undisclosed manufacturing center in southeast Michigan, Joe Hinrichs, Ford president of global operations, said Wednesday.

"This is a different battery-electric vehicle than the one announced in 2017," Hinrichs told The Detroit News. "This is a different plan. We have a more ambitious plan for battery-electric vehicles around the world."

The plans reaffirm part of those announced in December 2017 when the automaker said it would ship production of its all-new fully battery electric SUV to Mexico, and focus on autonomous vehicle production at Flat Rock Assembly Plant. The automaker said then it would invest $200 million in addition to $700 million it had announced 12 months prior. All told, the moves would require Ford to add roughly 900 jobs at Flat Rock, the automaker said then.

No new investment other than the previously announced $900 million is planned at Flat Rock. Ford still plans to add 900 positions and a second shift at Flat Rock by 2023. But neither the battery-electric SUV nor the autonomous-vehicle platform will be assembled at Flat Rock.

Ford would not give specifics about the new autonomous-vehicle center, where the automaker plans to take the hybrid vehicle exteriors and install "purpose-built" interiors and autonomous technology in a process similar to that at the police vehicle modification center in Chicago, a spokeswoman said. It's unclear if it would be a new building, or occupying a previously existing building. Ford will spend $50 million on that facility.

"Ford’s $900 million in investments, most of which is in the Flat Rock facility, sets up the downriver Detroit facility to be the center of electric vehicles for years to come," said UAW Vice President Rory Gamble in a statement. "As we transition to new technology and future products, Flat Rock through this investment, is well positioned to be a world leader for decades to come in auto industry technology and production."

Ford announced in 2017 it would build its hybrid autonomous vehicle and all-new battery electric vehicles at Flat Rock. The plant has been building Lincoln Continentals and Ford Mustang. Plans announced Wednesday would pull that autonomous-vehicle assembly — which will involve installation of Ford's self-driving technology and "unique interiors" — out of the future plans for Flat Rock and into a "new AV manufacturing center in southeast Michigan."

Ford did not specify Wednesday where that autonomous vehicle center would be, and whether it would be an all-new building or occupy existing manufacturing space.

Adding battery-electric production and 900 jobs at Flat Rock by 2023 would make Ford's factory there the second U.S. factory to have the ability assemble internal-combustion engine vehicles, battery-electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles in the same plant. Hinrichs said Ford will have the capability to build autonomous vehicles at Flat Rock, but plans for now to do so at a different location in Michigan. General Motors Co. does that at its Orion Assembly Plant.

Meantime, Ford is planning to build at least two future vehicles in Mexico. The as-yet-unnamed battery-electric Mustang-inspired SUV due in 2020 will be built at Ford's existing Cuautitlan, Mexico, plant. The automaker used to build its Fiesta subcompact there. 

Ford also plans to build the next-generation Transit Connect vans for North America at its Hermosillo, Mexico, plant. The automaker built Fusion, Fusion Hybrids and Lincoln MKZs there. The Fusion won't get a redesign after the 2019 model year, and production will cease within a few years as the automaker phases all sedans out of its lineup.

The Transit Connect is currently assembled in Spain for the global market. The full-size Transit van is currently made at Ford's Kansas City Assembly Plant. The Transit Connect move would increase "U.S. and Canadian vehicle content consistent with the proposed USMCA trade agreement," Ford said in a statement. 

Hinrichs said Ford has shared its planned production moves with state and national politicians. 

The moves in North America come weeks after Ford announced it would exit the heavy truck business in Brazil to drive South American profits, and restructure its European business. The automaker announced a week ago it would eliminate more than 5,000 jobs in Germany and cut an unspecified number of jobs in the United Kingdom. 

CEO Jim Hackett is moving to spend $11 billion to restructure Ford's global business, which is expected to include salaried job cuts in North America. Meantime, Ford is also moving to slice and redeploy $25.5 billion from its operating budget.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau