GM investing $100M in Mich. plants for AV production

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

General Motors Co.’s Orion Assembly plant will churn out the first production-ready car without a steering wheel or gas pedal next year, adding to the increasingly crucial plant’s role in GM’s promised future of driverless cars and zero emissions.

GM said Thursday it will invest more than $100 million in the two Michigan plants where it plans to build its Cruise AV driverless car and the high-tech roof modules required to guide the car without a driver.

The vehicle will be assembled at its Orion Township assembly plant, where the Chevrolet Bolt EV and test versions of the Cruise AV already are produced. The roof modules, which include special equipment for autonomous operation like lidar, cameras and sensors, will be built at GM’s Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant.

Workers at the Brownstown Township plant started producing the roof modules at the end of 2017. Production of the Cruise AV at Orion assembly is expected to begin in 2019.

The announcement comes a week after CEO Mary Barra announced the Orion plant would increase Bolt EV production to meet increasing global demand for the long-range battery-electric car. GM sold about 26,000 Bolt EVs globally in 2017, driven largely by U.S. consumers who bought 23,297 of the battery-electric compact crossovers. The Bolt became available nationwide in August.

It’s not clear yet whether the increased Bolt EV capacity at Orion, the specifics of which GM does not share, will require extra shifts or added jobs. But GM spokeswoman Kim Carpenter said the Cruise AV production would not impact jobs at either Orion or Brownstown.

The Cruise AV is expected to hit the road in 2019 in a yet-to-be-named city where GM will launch a driverless taxi service. GM is still waiting on federal approval for its first autonomous car without a driver, steering wheel or manual controls. It filed a petition with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year to meet 16 safety requirements “in a different way,” given that federal safety regulation language revolves around human drivers and vehicles engineered to be piloted by a human driver.

Gaining federal approval is still not guaranteed, and even if GM gets the OK from NHTSA, it will have to negotiate at a state level. There are only seven states in which the Cruise AV could deploy immediately after federal approval, including Michigan. The other six are North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Texas, Colorado and Nevada.

GM has said it is likely the 2019 launch would happen in a city where Cruise Automation, GM’s self-driving unit, is already testing Cruise AVs. Most of that testing happens in downtown San Francisco, but there are also testbeds around the Tech Center in Warren and in Scottsdale, Arizona.

GM’s announcement Thursday came as Ford Motor Co. unveiled its future product plans in Dearborn. Ford wants to re-establish its legacy as a producer of pickup trucks and SUVs with a plan to realign its portfolio to favor trucks, SUVs and commercial vehicles. Ford also wants to outpace Toyota in sales of hybrid vehicles.

Absent from Ford’s presentation were updated plans for its autonomous vehicles, which the Dearborn-based automaker plans to launch commercially in 2021. The Blue Oval last month launched a small fleet of fully self-driving test vehicles in Miami as it tests delivery services. Ford is hedging its bets on deploying a driverless delivery service before it focuses on a driverless taxi service like the one GM plans to launch next year.

Closer behind GM in the race for autonomous vehicles is Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, the former Google self-driving project. This week, Waymo removed the drivers from its autonomous taxi service in suburban Phoenix, and it’s expanding its business plan to include self-driving freight-haulers. Waymo is launching a fleet of self-driving semi-trucks in Atlanta this week.

But Waymo is still outsourcing its vehicles, including its fleet of Pacifica minivans from Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and its Peterbilt Class 8 trucks in Georgia.

Workers at GM’s Orion Assembly started building versions of the Cruise AV in January 2017. The production-ready vehicle is GM’s fourth-generation driverless car in just 18 months.

“We’re continuing to make great progress on our plans to commercialize in 2019,” GM President Dan Ammann said in a statement. “Our Orion and Brownstown teams have proven experience in building high-quality self-driving test vehicles and battery packs, so they are well-prepared to produce the Cruise AV.”

The Orion plant will also continue to build the Bolt EV, which is the platform for the Cruise AV and the Chevrolet Sonic. Roof modules will be built on a dedicated assembly line at the Brownstown Battery Assembly plant, which will continue its regular operations as well.

“The UAW is committed to preparing our members for the future of advanced mobility and this investment recognizes our willingness to work together to build these self-driving vehicles,” Cindy Estrada, vice president and director for the UAW’s GM department, said in a statement. “Whether it involves traditional vehicles or advance technology, our members are highly capable of delivering great products.”