Finley: How the Waymo plant ended up in Detroit

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
Fiat Chrysler has an agreement to supply thousands of Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans to Waymo to support a driverless ride-hailing service.

Detroit's landing of a Waymo driverless car plant is billed as a victory by the Motor City over Silicon Valley.

But the real competition for the Google affiliate wasn't California. It was Wixom.

Waymo had already decided it wanted to be in Metro Detroit to be closer to the Windsor assembly plant that produces the hybrid Chrysler Pacifica minivans it uses in its self-driving fleet. But Detroit wasn't on its radar. Waymo's broker was showing it only suburban sites.

Detroit got in the race in January only after Dan Gilbert read a story about Waymo receiving tax credits from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to build a plant in Metro Detroit.

Gilbert sent an email to Waymo CEO John Krafcik, who he had met at the Detroit auto show two years ago, offering help in finding a site in the city. Krafcik told him he was ready to ink a lease for property in Wixom, near where the company had a testing facility.

Gilbert asked him to delay for a week, assuring him he had the perfect spot for Waymo in Detroit. It was a bluff. Gilbert didn't have a site, and wasn't sure he could find one in a week.  Suitable industrial space in Detroit is scarce. Most of what's available was built in the 1930s and needs time-consuming rehabilitation work. Waymo wanted to be up and operating in five to six months.   

But Gilbert's Bedrock team scrambled. They huddled with city officials to brainstorm options.  Someone remembered a Bedrock visit in 2017 to the sprawling American Axle complex at I-75 and Holbrook, during which CEO David Dauch talked about his vision for the sparsely used space.

The team descended on the American Axle facility, looking through plants and warehouses. And like magic, they stumbled into the ideal building. Before the week was out, they'd convinced the company to look at the site. A deal soon followed, and this week Waymo announced it is bringing a $14 million investment and up to 400 jobs to the city.

Here's the kicker: Bedrock makes nothing off the transaction, despite its orchestration. While it may get an opportunity to cash in should Waymo expand in the future, Bedrock is betting its real payoff will come from establishing Detroit as the place to be for the autonomous driving industry. It believes Waymo's decision to come here will catch the attention of other firms seeking a piece of the driverless action.

And those companies will need talented young people, who will eventually fill Bedrock's Detroit offices, lofts and condos.

It comes, of course, at Oakland County's expense.  And it follows an earlier effort by Bedrock to divert Ally Financial from Southfield to Detroit. On the other hand, the suburbs grew by draining Detroit, and turnabout might be considered fair play.

Either way, luring a California tech company to Detroit to advance the autonomous frontier is a major coup, and if it truly does serve as a magnet for others of its ilk, the entire region will benefit.

Rebuilding Detroit doesn't happen easy. It takes the sort of hustle and hard sell used to land Waymo.

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