Ford ups investment at Flat Rock, moves EV to Mexico

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. is scrapping plans to build an all-electric SUV at its Flat Rock Assembly Plant so it can concentrate on self-driving cars there and build the electrics in Mexico.

The change will allow the Dearborn-based automaker to manufacture greater numbers of its upcoming autonomous vehicles and will lead to more jobs at the Michigan plant, Ford spokesman Alan Hall said Wednesday night.

The hybrid-electric autonomous vehicle to be built at Flat Rock will be an entirely new model. To prepare for that, Ford will invest an additional $200 million at the plant over the next few years, Hall said. That’s in addition to the $700 million the company said in January it would invest to build electrics alongside self-drivers. It will add 250 more jobs above the 700 that had been promised earlier.

The latest plans were first reported Wednesday evening by the Wall Street Journal.

The low-margin electric vehicles ultimately will be cheaper for Ford to build in Mexico. But the move could draw the ire of President Donald Trump, who less than a year ago praised the company’s plan to build electrics at Flat Rock. During his campaign and early in his presidency, Trump frequently criticized U.S. automakers, singling out Ford multiple times, for plans to build factories outside of the U.S.

Hall said Ford is preparing Flat Rock for greater production volume of the hybrid autonomous vehicle that will come to market in 2021. Manufacturing the battery-electric SUV there wouldn’t have allowed the company to expand as much as it might need, so executives decided to build the SUV at Ford’s Cuautitlán Stamping and Assembly Plant in Mexico.

Ford in January announced it was scrapping plans to build a $1.6 billion in plant in Mexico, where it would have built the next-generation Ford Focus. Former CEO Mark Fields said then the company would instead invest $700 million at Flat Rock to make an electric SUV and a hybrid-electric autonomous vehicle. The company said then that the Focus would be built at an existing plant in Mexico.

But in June, those plans changed. Under new CEO Jim Hackett, the next-generation Focus will be built in China and imported to the U.S. It will be the first time Ford will import Chinese-made vehicles to the U.S. Ford said the change in plans will save the company $1 billion.

The switch appeared not to have registered with Trump, who has been known to tweet when an automaker announced foreign manufacturing plans.

The company has said moving production of the Focus to China will not result in any job cuts for U.S. hourly employees at the Michigan Assembly Plant where it’s currently produced. That plant in Wayne will be converted to make the new Ranger pickup starting in late 2018 and the new Bronco SUV in 2020 once Focus production is moved.

The all-new hybrid electric nameplate to be built at Flat Rock will function as Ford’s autonomous fleet vehicle. In a Wednesday evening blog post, Jim Farley, Ford executive vice president and president of global markets, wrote that the new vehicle will be “commercial grade” and “designed for purpose.”

The company currently tests its suite of sensors and software for the autonomous vehicles on hybrid Ford Fusions.

Farley wrote Ford will supply vehicles to partners based on the partners’ needs.

“Next year will be an important time for us as we begin to test both our self-driving technology and business model in a variety of pilot programs in the first city in which we plan to operate an autonomous vehicle business,” Farley wrote. “I can’t wait to share more with you about our plans and promise to do so throughout this journey we’re on to create the future.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau