DETROIT — EV, AV, EV. Ford Motor Co. has changed its mind twice about what kinds of vehicles will roll out of its plant in Flat Rock, Mich., within the next few years.
In late 2017, Ford predicted future demand for its commercial autonomous vehicles necessitated more room at the Flat Rock Assembly Plant than originally planned, so it shifted an upcoming electric crossover from that plant to Mexico to free up capacity.
Now the automaker is reversing course, instead deciding that its battery-electric vehicles need a second North American plant, in addition to the one in central Mexico. It said last week that Flat Rock will make EVs, while AV production moves elsewhere in southeast Michigan.
Ford's Flat Rock flip-flops illustrate the difficulty automakers face gauging demand for unproven future technologies — and the speed at which those plans can change. Many are placing multibillion-dollar bets with scant evidence to go on, hoping consumers eventually overcome their fears of robot cars and that slow-selling EVs will finally take off.
"I think everyone needs some flexibility in terms of where they're going with all these future technologies," Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at Autotrader, told Automotive News. "While EVs aren't selling now, many believe sales will grow. And it's pretty clear that reality has set in [on AVs] that the runway is a lot longer than most people think."
Still, Ford has consistently said it plans to launch its autonomous vehicle in 2021 at scale for commercial delivery of groceries and other goods. Its Mexico-built battery-electric crossover, inspired by the Mustang, is expected next year.
"It's a better plan for how we allocate capital in a more efficient way," Joe Hinrichs, Ford's president of global operations, told Automotive News.
The automaker did not disclose a location, investment figure or jobs estimate for its autonomous vehicle center. In a statement, Ford said the site will upfit purpose-built, commercial-grade hybrid vehicles with self-driving technology and unique interiors. A spokeswoman later said the site will be owned by Ford, not a supplier.
"As we ramp up AV production, this plan allows us to adjust our investment spending to accommodate the pace of growth of this exciting new technology," Hinrichs said. "This new plan combines our core strength in mass manufacturing with the agility and leanness we've shown with our modification centers for specialty manufacturing."
The Flat Rock moves represent a $900 million investment through 2023 that will result in 900 new jobs — figures Ford first announced in 2017. But now, instead of building AVs, those workers will be dedicated to EV production, as well as the next-generation Mustang.
The plant is scheduled to lose about 1,000 jobs when its second production shift ends this spring, with about half of the affected workers moving to nearby plants. The other half are temporary employees who aren't guaranteed another assignment. The investment will mean restoring the lost shift and a net increase of about 500 jobs in the area, though it's unclear when.