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Waymo announces major expansion in Michigan, the cradle of the US auto industry

The Google spinoff wants to build a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant

Waymo is expanding its presence in Michigan, the state synonymous with the US auto industry. The Google self-driving spinoff announced Tuesday that its plan to build a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing center and hire up to 400 employees over the next five years was just approved by the state’s economic development corporation. It’s a sign that Waymo is interested in gaining more control over its production process as it seeks to grow its business of deploying autonomous vehicles.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation approved an $8 million incentive to Waymo to build its manufacturing plant in the state, The Detroit News reported. Under the deal, Waymo agrees to create a minimum of 100 new jobs in the state, but would receive the $8 million incentive only if it exceeds that minimum and creates up to 400 jobs. Total investment in the facility will be $13.6 million, MEDC says. According to the News:

The Mountain View, California-based company says it is looking for up to 200,000 square feet of ready-to-go, light manufacturing facility space in Macomb, Oakland or Wayne county. Jeremy Webb, senior business development project manager at the Michigan Economic Development Corp., said the company is in talks with a few locations, though it has not yet signed a lease.

According to the deal with the economic development corporation, the facility must be in operation by the end of 2021 with at least 100 new employees. Waymo could create up to 400 jobs in the region by 2025.

In a blog post, Waymo said it would look to hire engineers, operations experts, and fleet coordinators. “This will be the world’s first factory 100%-dedicated to the mass production of [Level 4] autonomous vehicles,” the company said.

Waymo will also work with Canadian auto supplier Magna to help integrate the company’s self-driving system into its fleet with a team hired exclusively for its work. Magna is also working with ride-hailing company Lyft on its self-driving project.

To be sure, Waymo does not actually build cars itself, only the hardware and software associated with making those cars drive on their own. The company has deals with Fiat Chrysler and Jaguar Land Rover to purchase vehicles from both companies — Chrysler Pacifica minivans and Jaguar I-Pace electric SUVs — that are then retrofitted by joint-engineering teams to become autonomous.

Today, the Pacifica minivans are manufactured at an FCA plant in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit. Then they are shipped to a technology center in Novi, Michigan, where they are outfitted with perception software, cameras, sensors, and other equipment that enables them to drive autonomously. The Novi facility, which opened in 2016, employs 20 people. The vehicles will be sent to the new manufacturing facility for installation and retrofitting after it opens.

Waymo is also still testing its self-driving minivans on Michigan’s snowy streets of Detroit. The company won’t say how many vehicles it is testing in the state, but has several hundred spread among several US cities, including Phoenix, where it recently launched a limited commercial taxi service.