Detroit Throws Down for Autonomy

Will classic cross-town rivalry be the real driver of self-driving technology?

Consider: every auto maker on the planet (if there are exceptions, do they really count?) has made its way physically and financially to Silicon Valley, where there are companies that are developing, mainly, the compute platforms (e.g., “AI,” “deep learning,” multi-core processors, “HAL 9000,” etc.) that will be responsible for providing the directions for a given motor vehicle. After all, Santa Clara country and thereabout are where people with the skillsets for that stuff reside.

However, there is the car part of the equation.

When Waymo wanted to have more than its cute little Firefly vehicles (which, coincidentally, it announced on June 12 it will be retiring), it went to FCA to secure Pacifica Hybrid minivans. FCA has scale, and when it comes to physically making complicated things like motor vehicles, Waymo doesn’t.

While FCA’s self-driving technology activities seem to be based on providing Waymo with vehicles, the other two companies in town are going hard at it, trying to get their vehicles sufficiently fitted out with sensors and processors to make self-driving vehicles a reality.

Arguably, one of the reasons why Mark Fields lost his job as CEO of Ford is rumored to be because he wasn’t perceived as being sufficiently fast in getting those LiDAR-equipped Fusions not merely driving around Mcity and Dearborn, but where they’d get even more visibility. (After all, seeing self-driving cars at Mcity is pretty much like seeing school buses in front of an elementary school; seeing Fusions in Dearborn—even if they have all manner of rotating things on their roofs—is like seeing hamburgers at McDonald’s.)

On June 13 General Motors, which acquired Cruise Automation (HQ: SF) last year, and which announced in April a $14-million investment in building out more office space for R&D for the self-driving tech company, revealed that it has produced 130 Chevrolet Bolt electric vehicles fully tricked out with LiDAR, cameras, sensors and other hardware, at its Orion Assembly Plant in southeastern Michigan.

Orion Assembly is a 4.3-million square-foot factory where vehicles are mass produced, not built like a variation of Faberge eggs.

These 130 Bolts are added to the 50 that GM already has rolling around in Scottsdale, Arizona (hmm. . .Waymo has announced its early rider program—in metropolitan Phoenix—that will allow people to get driven around in self-driving Pacificas and Lexus RX450hs), Warren, Michigan (where the GM Technical Center is located) and, of course, San Francisco.

GM chairman and CEO Mary Barra said of the build of the vehicles (and know that she is uniquely knowledgeable about manufacturing, as earlier in her career she was plant manager at Detroit Hamtramck Assembly, where the Chevy Volt is now being built), “This production milestone brings us one step closer to making our vision of personal mobility a reality. Expansion of our real-world test fleet will help ensure that our self-driving vehicles meet the same strict standards for safety and quality that we build into all of our vehicles.”

Barra knows more than a little something about lean production. And one of the keys to lean production is takt time. There is cycle time, which is the number of something that can be produced based on equipment. Generally speaking, the cycle time in a vehicle plant is on the order of 60 per hour, meaning one car produced every minute.

But takt time is different. Historically, Detroit manufacturing was predicated on cycle time, which is basically push: as in pushing product out the door.

Takt time is part of a pull system. Pull requires that someone actually wants it.

So takt time is production based on customer demand.

At this point in time it is clear that the Orion Assembly takt time for self-driving vehicles is still way, way low. Looked at in terms of cycle time, it is conceivable that all 150 self-driving Bolt EVs could have been produced in three hours.

Still, GM has thrown down the gauntlet to Ford. And arguably to Tesla, BMW, Mercedes, Toyota, Honda, Nissan and all the rest.

Sure, the sensors and software matter. But so does getting the sheet metal on the road that carry those things.

And that’s where the car companies come in.

Yes, manufacturing matters.