MEDC Leader Details Michigan’s Road to the Waymo AV Factory Deal

Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor — 

This week, Michigan’s economic development office notched a win when it announced that Waymo, Google’s mobility arm, had chosen the Great Lakes State as the location for a new manufacturing operation.

According to a press release from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Waymo will invest $13.6 million in a factory that will integrate Waymo’s driverless car technology into the vehicle platforms of the automakers it partners with. Waymo also pledged to create at least 100 jobs. On Tuesday, the Michigan Strategic Fund approved an $8 million “performance-based grant” for Waymo’s project.

Jeff Mason, the MEDC’s chief executive, notes that Mountain View, CA-based Waymo first established an R&D facility in metro Detroit a few years ago. A team of about 20 people worked on various AV projects, including one with Fiat Chrysler to develop 100 self-driving Pacifica hybrid minivans. At that time, Mason says, the state began cultivating a more significant relationship with Waymo, with the two parties holding meetings at the Detroit auto show and in California.

“We recognized that this is a company that is growing and leading to a commercial path [for AVs],” he explains. “It also dovetailed nicely with some of the legislative changes we’ve made in Michigan to create the right environment and ecosystem for the connected car and mobility space.”

At the end of 2016, then-Governor Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that clarified how self-driving cars could operate on Michigan roads. Hailed as being the first legislation of its kind, the bills addressed developing and testing driverless cars without steering wheels, pedals, or human control.

The legislation also contained guidelines for automotive and tech companies focused on self-driving cars in ridesharing services, and the public sale of AVs once the technology has been tested and certified. About a dozen states have enacted AV safety regulations since, but Michigan’s are among the most comprehensive and permissive.

“Regulations were one factor that drew Waymo here initially,” Mason says. “[Mobility] companies getting to the manufacturing and production stage are seeing that Michigan is an ideal location. In particular, we’re seeing companies from the West Coast that aren’t necessarily moving, but growing. Why be a small fish in a big pond?”

Mason says Michigan “competed aggressively” with other states in the Southeastern and Southwestern U.S. to score the Waymo deal. The company is looking to repurpose an existing space in either Wayne, Oakland, or Macomb County rather than build something from scratch, he adds. The final location decision is expected to be made by spring.

We reached out to Waymo for comment; the notoriously tight-lipped company did not grant an interview before publication, but it did send a link to a blog post published Tuesday.

“As we begin to commercialize our business and vehicle supply grows, we’re laying the foundation for a scalable, robust vehicle integration plan, starting in Michigan,” Waymo wrote in the post. “We’re partnering with [auto supplier] Magna to help integrate Waymo’s self-driving system into our fleet of different vehicles, with a team hired exclusively for our work.”

The company went on to say that the Michigan facility will be the world’s first factory dedicated full-time to the mass production of Level 4 AVs.

Mason says his organization is all-in on the future of transportation technology.

“We have a lot of things working in our favor these days for mobility,” he continues. “There are a lot of systematic things we’ve put in place—safety regulations, the PlanetM Landing Zone, Mcity, the American Center for Mobility—and all of these things contribute towards having the right kind of ecosystem to support startups as well as mature companies.”