Washtenaw County's reputation as a hub for autonomous vehicle research and development got another boost with the announcement that French company NAVYA will soon begin manufacturing its ARMA autonomous shuttle vehicles at a production plant in Saline.
NAVYA's electric ARMA shuttles seat up to 15 people. About 45 of them are in use around the world to date. Eventually, autonomous vehicles may operate on the open road, but currently most applications of the ARMA vehicles are focused on smaller, enclosed areas, such as providing shuttle service in an amusement park or around the campus of a large hospital complex. NAVYA expects the North American market for this type of vehicle to explode in the next three or four decades.
NAVYA first became interested in the southeast Michigan region after Ann Arbor SPARK hosted a French mobility delegation in 2015.
"They were interested in exploring the U.S. market and were exposed to the stuff happening in Mcity and the American Center for Mobility and generally automotive culture in southeast Michigan," says Phil Santer, senior vice president of business development at SPARK.
The city of Saline already has a core of international businesses, including a couple other French companies, and a solid tech business community. Santer says that created a "pretty welcoming atmosphere" for NAVYA.
"Places like Saline are hitting above their weight class," Santer says. "There's so much technology and innovation going on, and you don't find such really interesting things going on in another community of similar size somewhere else."
The French company wanted to settle somewhere in the greater Ann Arbor area, Santer says, in part because "we have a heritage of having a reliable supply chain for automotive vehicles." NAVYA officials decided that the 20,000-square-foot facility at 1406 E. Michigan Ave. in Saline, formerly warehouse space for American Soy, would best meet their needs.
NAVYA is expected to make about $1 million in capital improvements and create about 50 jobs. As a result, the company netted a $435,000 Michigan Business Development grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation.
"This certainly adds to Saline's technology cluster, and we hope this will be a driver and validation point for other international mobility startups to invest in the greater Ann Arbor area and around Michigan," Santer says.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos courtesy of NAVYA.