Getting in on the act: 3 companies joining the rush for Michigan mobility investment

Ford's announcement last year of its plans to transform Detroit's abandoned Michigan Central Station into an R&D hub for autonomous and electrified vehicle development served as a blazing beacon for southeast Michigan's burgeoning mobility sector. And in the time since then, other bright spots have continued to appear on the region's mobility radar, with several companies setting up mobility operations or expanding existing offerings in the Metro Detroit area in recent months.

Fiat Chrysler

Fiat Chrysler's recent decision to invest $4.5 billion to construct a new assembly plant in Detroit and increase production at five existing facilities around Michigan is a move that will facilitate the electrification of new Jeep Models.

Glenn Stevens, MICHauto's executive director and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives with the Detroit Regional Chamber, expects big things to come from the expansion.

"The $4.5 billion FCA investment in Detroit and surrounding Michigan plants is truly a transformational development for the communities where these facilities are located and nearly 6,500 new jobs will be created," he says. "At the same time, as vehicle technology and architecture is transforming, this investment is being done with an eye towards the rapidly developing mobility sector."

Perhaps the biggest news on that front will be the automaker's planned $1.6 billion endeavor to retool Detroit's Mack Avenue Engine Complex into a factory that will make next-generation Jeep Grand Cherokees and SUVs. 

As part of this expansion, FCA will also be putting $900 million into modernizing its Jefferson North Assembly plant in Detroit, which will be making Dodge Durangos and next-gen Jeep Grand Cherokees, and increase spending to $1.5 billion at its Warren Truck Assembly Plant, which will focus on producing all-new Jeep Wagoneers and Grand Wagoneers while continuing to manufacture RAM 1500 Classics. All three of these facilities will also be making plug-in hybrid Jeep models and will keep open the future option of building full battery-electric models. The new investment is expected to create approximately 6,350 new jobs at these sites, though the actual implementation of the expansion is still dependent on the outcome of several real estate deals and development negotiations with the previously mentioned cities and the state of Michigan.

For Stevens, the mobility implications of FCA's investment plans can't be understated.

"The next generation vehicles that will be built at these operations will carry electrification technology and FCA has made it clear that from the designs to the assembly lines these investments will enable the company to produce the cars and trucks that the market demands today and the technology that is rapidly evolving with regards to connected, automated, shared and electrified," he says.

FCA's investment "is being done with an eye towards the rapidly developing mobility sector," says Glenn Stevens, executive director for MICHauto. Photo by Detroit Regional Chamber.


The Japanese auto parts supplier DENSO is also moving toward mobility in southeast Michigan. As it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, DENSO has been embarking upon a historic effort to branch out from hardware into software-oriented solutions that will involve working with products like beta apps and mobility electronics.

"It's a huge jump, and it's what we're calling our second foundation," says Bill Foy, senior vice president of engineering at DENSO International America, Inc. "When you talk about mobility: connected, autonomous, shared, electrified. We're working in all of those areas."

During expansion, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation worked with DENSO to attract and train talent for new mobility products.

The company highlighted its new vision in these areas during last year's North American International Auto Show. Oculus Rift VR equipment at DENSO's NAIAS booth gave visitors a chance to visualize a connected vehicle as well as learn how DENSO sensors could be used to guide automated vehicles on the road.

Although much of this represents new terrain for the parts supplier, Foy believes DENSO's holistic approach to problem-solving and its established logistical position will give the company an edge as it moves forward, particularly as vehicle fleet operators begin to play a bigger role in the mobility landscape. DENSO sees opportunities to use technology to address how fleet vehicles are cleaned and repaired, and how they recognize people on the street.

DENSO's change in direction has led the company to invest in expanding research capabilities in the region. The company's North American regional headquarters in Southfield is now setting up a connected services department.

Headed by senior vice president Norihito Tanahashi, it will concentrate on automated and connected driving. DENSO also recently established an R&D department in its North American Production and Innovation Center Division, which among other things will be looking into developing products and services for shared mobility. These new developments have been several years in the making, with DENSO first announcing a $75.5 million investment to expand tech development back in 2017.

DENSO recognizes that its paradigm shift is definitely going to involve some retraining.

"Michigan has a lot of great talent for us," says Foy. "But when we start to think about that second foundation, what's really important to us is the mindshift change that needs to occur among all our engineering community."

Southeast Michigan's existing base of highly skilled workers as well as the proximity to so many of DENSO's auto industry customers were reasons the company chose to expand research operations in Michigan. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation also played a key role, working together with DENSO to attract and train talent for their new endeavors.

"We relied very heavily on Michigan for job support in the Detroit area and in our manufacturing facilities in Michigan, and that was greatly appreciated," says Foy. "That type of economic development is really important to keep companies in Michigan and growing in Michigan."

Dr. John Mlinarcik, an executive and team-building coach, discusses communication styles and collaboration strategies with DENSO engineers.


The excitement around mobility in the region isn't limited to expanding existing business, though. Earlier this year, the self-driving vehicle company Waymo indicated its desire to establish a new presence in southeast Michigan. Waymo, which started its life as a Google side project, became a stand-alone subsidiary of the search engine firm's corporate parent company, Alphabet Inc. in 2016. It’s known for creating its own in-house hardware and software which can run together seamlessly and be installed into existing automobile frames. After testing vehicles in Arizona for several years, the firm now wants to start manufacturing automated vehicles in the Metro Detroit area.

"Waymo plans to find a facility in Southeast Michigan and partner with [automotive supplier] Magna, who will help us integrate self-driving systems into our vehicles," says Waymo spokesperson Alexis Georgeson.

The company intends to invest $13.6 million to get the factory up and running. It would be the first manufacturing facility in the world 100 percent dedicated to the mass production of L4 autonomous vehicles. Waymo already has partnerships in place with Jaguar Land Rover and Fiat Chrysler and currently plans on integrating its self-driving systems into Chrysler Pacificas and Jaguar I-Paces.

The new factory is expected to create 400 jobs, including positions as engineers, operations experts, and fleet coordinators. Although a location has not yet been disclosed, the company expects to finalize negotiations and move into a space by the middle of 2019.

Waymo announced its intentions to set up the factory this January after receiving an $8 million grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation to renovate a Michigan site for the project. In addition to this financial incentive from MEDC, Michigan's skilled workforce and its harsh winter weather, which is perfect for testing cars in snowy road conditions, helped draw Waymo in.

"As our business demand and vehicle supply grows, it is important for Waymo to prepare to lay the foundation for a more scalable, robust vehicle integration plan. Michigan is synonymous with the auto industry," says Georgeson. "As we began looking at where it makes sense to do the initial growth phase of our manufacturing footprint, Michigan was attractive due to the pool of talent, partners, and opportunity Michigan offers.”

During NAIAS, DENSO used Oculus Rift VR to help visitors visualize autonomous vehicles guided by DENSO sensors.

Photos by Steve Koss
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