GM builds driverless, electric future at Orion plant

Nora Naughton
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to correct what the Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant supplies for the Bolt-based Cruise AV autonomous car. 

Orion Township — A General Motors Co. manufacturing plant in Metro Detroit that was idled during the Detroit automaker’s federally induced bankruptcy is now one of the keys to GM’s future.

Orion Assembly worker Justine Murphy installs the rear suspension on a Chevy Bolt last month.

The Detroit automaker is among those leading the charge into driverless, emission-free transportation, promising to build the industry’s first production-ready, dedicated autonomous vehicle next year. And GM has placed its all-electric and autonomous vehicles in the hands of American auto workers at Orion Assembly plant, a low-cost production center for GM’s smallest cars.

Members of United Auto Workers Local 5960 have been building GM’s long-range battery-electric Chevrolet Bolt EV at the plant since 2016. The small EV — though still not in high demand as consumers cling to gas-powered SUVs and crossovers — symbolizes GM’s claim to lead a global transition to zero-emissions mobility.

The Bolt provides the platform for GM’s autonomous test vehicles built at Orion. And the compact crossover is the vessel for GM’s production-ready Cruise AV, the driverless car with no steering wheel or pedals that the Detroit automaker plans to deliver next year in a yet-to-be-named city.

Orion Assembly is one of two plants where GM is investing $100 million in total to re-tool for Cruise AV production. The other plant is Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant, where roof modules for the Cruise AV are built.

Other GM car plants in the United States aren’t getting similar investments. GM recently told employees at its Lordstown plant in northeast Ohio that the plant will cut back to one shift later this year because of declining sales for its only vehicle, the Chevrolet Cruze. The Detroit-Hamtramck plant — which builds the Buick LaCrosse, Cadillac CT6, Chevrolet Impala and plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt — idled for several weeks at the end of last year after it moved to one shift earlier in 2017.

Where small cars come from

GM established Orion as its hub for small-car production in the United States just before the Detroit automaker emerged from bankruptcy. It’s the only GM plant in the United States that builds cars the size of the Bolt and Chevrolet Sonic; most other manufacturers outsource small-car manufacturing to lower-cost countries like Mexico because the high cost of U.S. labor is difficult to justify on lower-margin vehicles.

GM and the UAW first agreed to a two-tiered wage system in 2007 to save Orion and a handful of other plants. But the controversial pay plan, which had little-to-no room for growth, was scrapped in the most recent collective bargaining agreement.

Orion Assembly, which currently employs some 1,000 workers, partially operates on an in-progression wage system. Certain workers who organize assembly kits that move with each vehicle to keep the line running smoothly are hired at a lower wage scale, with the opportunity to eventually move up to higher wages. This kitting operation, previously contracted out, was absorbed into the plant after the bankruptcy to keep overall labor costs down. Padded by these cost savings, GM is allowing for room to grow at Orion as it hedges its bets on the future.

“If they were really thinking (Orion) was long-term low-volume plant, it wouldn’t invest in a whole lot of automation or high-volume tooling,” said Kristin Dziczek, an industry, labor and economics analyst for the Center for Automotive Research. “They’re building a plant with headroom so if demand takes off they can easily increase output.”

A Bolt EV Powertrain on he assembly line at GM's Orion plant.

Crosstown rival Ford Motor Co., also hedging its bets on electric and autonomous vehicles, is taking a slightly different manufacturing approach. The Dearborn-based automaker is investing $900 million at its Flat Rock plant to retool for production of an all-new hybrid autonomous vehicle. As part of that plan, Ford is moving the production of a yet-to-be-named all-electric SUV to Mexico, where manufacturing costs are lower.

Analysts say Orion’s other vehicle, the Sonic small car, isn’t driving profits, and there’s speculation GM will ax the Sonic before the end of the year.

“Volume is the big issue for Orion,” Dziczek said. “Small cars with thin margins generally have a difficult time making a profit in the U.S., which is why most other producers are bringing them in from outside the U.S.”

GM does not share its production numbers, but the Orion plant has been on one shift since 2015. That’s usually an indication that the plant isn’t making money. It takes two shifts minimum, or 80 percent capacity, for a factory to be a money-maker. But the plant’s unique structure provides a cheaper option for building less-profitable small cars in the United States while GM waits to see where the market goes.

Learning from Bolt launch

After the retooling for the Bolt in 2016, there’s a high level of efficiency on the assembly line, too. Yves Dontigny, an engineer who led the manufacturing transition to the Bolt at Orion, worked to make the all-electric vehicle a seamless integration when he led the manufacturing transition in 2016.

The result is an assembly line that spits out Bolts and Sonics simultaneously, with workers installing gas tanks and lithium-ion batteries at the same station on the line. The plant also is close to GM’s Warren Technical Center, where engineers are developing autonomous and lithium-ion battery technology.

Dontigny said his team “learned a ton” with the launch of the Bolt, and some of those lessons are being applied as a new team prepares to launch the Cruise AV, which will also share an assembly line with the cars that feed what GM calls its “core business.”

Dontigny won’t take the lead on the Cruise AV launch as he moves to an operations manager position at the plant, but he said the goal is always the same: “We’re just looking for the most efficient way to do this.”

Efficiency will be important while GM waits to see where demand for EVs in the U.S. goes, Dziczek said, but it’s not something GM or its legacy automotive competitors are unaccustomed to.

That puts GM and its Detroit rivals arguably in better positions than Silicon Valley challenger Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk has been trying to navigate his way out of “production hell” while GM and other legacy automakers make incremental progress toward what some industry analysts call Auto 2.0.

Traditional automakers “can actually deliver the goods,” Dziczek said. “They back up their claims that they have the ability to do it.”