Foxconn’s potential role in self-drive industry unclear

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

A Foxconn Technology Group operation in Michigan could be a win for the state, but it’s unclear how the company — whether through as a research and development or manufacturing role — would fit in to the autonomous vehicle community already established here.

The Taiwanese electronics giant generated headlines overseas and in the U.S. this weekend when its chairman indicated a major investment might be made in the state. Chinese media outlets reported CEO Terry Gou saying his company would set up a Michigan operation focused on “next-generation auto technology ... and self-driving cars.”

No official announcement has been made confirming the deal, but Gov. Rick Snyder has been in China on a nine-day “investment mission” this month. His trip included a meeting with Gou Saturday in Shenzhen. On Monday, the governor’s office indicated there were no new developments.

Several U.S. analysts who were contacted were unfamiliar with Foxconn’s work in the auto industry to date. The company is best known for making electronic products for Apple, so it is unclear what form its research on driverless vehicles might take. A Foxconn spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

“Foxconn has a lot of high-tech manufacturing expertise making high-value products with good quality,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an senior research analyst with Navigant Research. “They already have business relationships with a number of non-automotive original equipment manufacturers that want to play in the (autonomous vehicle) space.

“It would make some sense for them to do something here. There are already a number of Chinese companies operating here.”

In late July, Foxconn announced plans for a manufacturing plant in Wisconsin — a $10 billion investment that would create as many as 3,000 jobs. That operation is expected to make flat-panel displays for electronic devices.

Abuelsamid said that in Michigan, Foxconn would be able to supply players already in the region that have designed components as part of a self-driving vehicle platform.

“The components that are necessary ... are the same sorts of things they already make for mobile devices and computers,” he said. “They know how to manufacture those things at scale and at relatively low cost.”

After touring a Foxconn plant, Snyder said Sunday he was “very impressed” by Gou’s vision for Foxconn. “We had a very productive dialogue about the importance of talent in manufacturing and the future of autonomous driving,” he said.

Foxconn is reportedly considering two Metro Detroit locations. “They’re looking at Lyon Township and they’re looking at Romulus,” Matthew Gibb, deputy Oakland County executive and head of the county’s economic development arm, said in a July interview.

Romulus would put Foxconn in close proximity to Detroit Metropolitan Airport as well as self-driving research facilities like the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, and the University of Michigan’s Mcity in Ann Arbor.

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