GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant will build Cruise Origin self-driving shuttle

Kalea Hall
The Detroit News

Detroit — General Motors Co. on Monday will solidify the importance of Detroit to the future of the auto industry when it confirms the all-electric Cruise Origin self-driving shuttle will be built at the Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant.

The announcement, first reported by The Detroit News on Friday, is central to GM's strategy of building a zero-emissions, zero-congestion and zero-crashes future with fleets of electric and autonomous vehicles.

The Origin, developed by Cruise LLC, the autonomous-vehicle unit of GM, was created in partnership with Honda Motor Co. Unveiled in San Francisco on Tuesday, it's a boxy vehicle with no steering wheel or gas pedal that's intended to be used in a ride-sharing fleet. It is powered by a new all-electric platform built by GM.

The Cruise Origin was will be built at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck plant. Cruise LLC, the autonomous vehicle unit of GM, provided this rendering of the vehicle.

For the Motor City, GM's decision "raises the image in terms of being more forward-thinking, more high-tech — and that’s a good thing for public perception," said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst for Autotrader, a Cox Automotive company. 

GM will invest $2.2 billion for an "all-electric future at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant for electric pickups, SUVs and AVs [autonomous vehicles]," Gerald Johnson, executive vice president of global manufacturing for GM, wrote in a letter to Detroit-Hamtramck employees Friday.

The investment brings with it 2,200 jobs at a plant targeted for closure before it found new life during tense negotiations over the course of a six-week strike by the United Auto Workers union last fall.

Electric pickup truck production will begin in late 2021, Johnson noted in the letter. A start date for the Origin hasn't been announced, but it's been reported that in addition to a truck, an electric van will begin rolling down the line in 2021.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives, said it make perfect sense to build the Cruise Origin in Detroit.

"We put the world on wheels," he said. "This is a logical place for a company to design and engineer and build a vehicle that’s quite revolutionary."

The Origin will be delivered globally, but no schedule has been released.

Cruise has a fleet of 180 Chevrolet Bolt-based Cruise AVs — built at the GM Lake Orion plant — that it tests on San Francisco streets. In 2019, Cruise drove almost 1 million miles on nearly every road in the city. Still, GM and Cruise last year missed a self-imposed deadline to launch the first iteration of an autonomous vehicle for commercial use because more testing was needed.

The Cruise Origin has not yet been tested on public streets. "I think there is going to be quite a bit of work involved before they are ready to deploy," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal analyst at Navigant Research.

Analysts foresee testing of the Origin in San Francisco, where the Cruise team is based. Abuelsamid also expects the company to test in Japan.

There's no indication how many Origins will be built, but analysts don't expect it to be built at a high volume, at least not for the first few years.

"It’s a forward-looking product. I think the question is, what does it mean in terms of volume and jobs?" Krebs said. 

The announcement Monday could demystify GM's plans for Detroit-Hamtramck, which have been in question for more than a year after GM said it would discontinue the sedans currently built there.

The Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac CT6 will hit the end of the line at Detroit-Hamtramck in February. The plant will then be idled as it's retooled for an electric lineup that is said to include the return of Hummer vehicles branded under GMC, and possibly an electric GMC Sierra and Cadillac Escalade. Retooling is expected to take 12 to 18 months, according to a chairman's report from UAW Local 22 at the Detroit-Hamtramck plant obtained by The News.

The assembly line likely will need "significant reconfiguration" since the plant is going from installing engines to batteries, Abuelsamid said. A battery-pack assembly line is expected to be a part of the revamp.

The automaker is expected to air a Super Bowl commercial featuring Lebron James and the first product expected to come out of the plant in late 2021: an electric version of a Hummer truck and SUV. GM purchased the Hummer brand in 1999 and discontinued it in 2010 following its bankruptcy.

Earlier this week, GM reached an agreement with Michigan to reduce and cap tax breaks as part of a deal that will require the automaker to invest $3.5 billion in the state in the next 10 years, including at Detroit-Hamtramck. Under the agreement announced Wednesday by the Michigan Strategic Fund board, the value of the GM's maximum tax credit over 20 years will be reduced by $325 million to about $2.28 billion.

GM's decisions come as Ford Motor Co. spends $740 million to renovate a historic site in Corktown and develop future technologies there. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV is spending $2.5 billion to retool two plants in Detroit to build next-generation Jeep SUVs and electric vehicles.

Additionally, Waymo LLC, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet Inc. is investing $14 million to outfit vehicles with its autonomous technology at a former American Axle & Manufacturing plant in Detroit.