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GM plans to make new electric car, spend $300M, hire 400 workers in Lake Orion

Jamie L. LaReau

General Motors plans to spend $300 million to build a new electric car at its Orion Assembly Plant north of Detroit, the company said Friday.

It plans to add about 400 workers at the factory, which builds the electric Chevrolet Bolt, autonomous vehicles for GM's Cruise unit, and the Chevy Sonic compact car.

GM CEO Mary Barra made the announcement at a meeting involving other GM leaders, UAW officials and a range of elected officials, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, gathered at the 4.3 million-square foot plant in Lake Orion, which employs about 1,166 people. 

"GM is absolutely committed to investing in and growing good-paying manufacturing jobs in the United States," Barra said. She said the car would be a Chevrolet and the company would provide further details closer to the vehicle's production.

Barra said provisions of the proposed new trade agreement among the United States, Mexico and Canada helped persuade GM that the vehicle should be built in the United States.

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GM's investments and cuts

The news comes as GM faces harsh criticism over its plan to idle five plants in North America this year and early next year, affecting some 6,200 jobs. GM has said the cuts are part of its restructuring and will save it $2.5 billion this year. The plants mostly build sedans, which have seen sales decline as consumers shift to buying SUVs and pickups.

Two of those plants are in Michigan: Detroit Hamtramck, which is expected to become idle in January 2020, and Warren Transmission, slated to go idle this year.

But the one in the media spotlight has been GM's Lordstown Assembly in Lordstown, Ohio.

President Donald Trump unleashed a series of tweets critical of GM for idling the plant, and urging GM reopen the facility, which had built the Chevrolet Cruze until March 6. 

Barra launched a vigorous defense of GM's investments in its U.S. plants.

Last month, GM said it would put $20 million into its propulsion plant in Romulus,  Michigan, to increase the plant’s capacity for future 10-speed transmission production. Romulus currently builds V6 engines and 10-speed transmissions used in several GM cars, trucks and crossovers. 

A day earlier, it said it would invest $36 million in its plant in Lansing Delta Township in  Michigan, where it builds the Buick Enclave and Chevrolet Traverse SUVs.

Barra said GM still has 4,000 employees at four plants in Ohio, and noted that Ohio is second only to Michigan in GM presence. She promised announcements soon about more workers shifting to Ohio operations. 

Workers and politicians have been angered that GM will build its revived Chevy Blazer SUV in Mexico and is not assigning new vehicles to U.S. plants. On Tuesday this week, GM also said it plans to invest $2.7 billion in two of its plants in Brazil over the next five years. 

The UAW's GM vice president, Terry Dittes, followed Barra to the podium at the plant, underscoring that the union disagrees with the U.S. plant cuts and "expects" more U.S. investment and a solution for displaced workers, while still hailing Friday's good news. 

The union starts talks this summer on a new contract with Detroit automakers, with 

Building robo-cars

GM builds the electric Bolt, used for GM's autonmous cars, at Orion. GM sold 18,019 Bolts in 2018, down 22.7 percent from 2017. Still, the cars are important to GM, which has said it envisions an "all electric" future one day.

It is also making a big play in self-driving cars, having vowed to bring the robot cars to a major metro market in the form of ride-hailing sometime this year.

GM bought GM Cruise, its self-driving car unit, in 2016. It was a 40-person start-up in San Francisco. Today, GM Cruise employs more than 1,000 people and is valued at more than 10 times the $1 billion GM paid for it. Employment at Cruise is expected to double in the next year. 

GM's investment in robot cars is massive. In June 2018, SoftBank, a large technology investment company with stakes in such companies as Uber, aid it was investing $2.25 billion in GM Cruise and GM will invest $1.1 billion in it.

Then, in October 2018, Honda said it would invest 2.75 billion in Cruise over 12 years to fund and develop a "purpose-built" self-driving car for Cruise that can serve a "wide variety of use cases and be manufactured at high volume for global deployment," GM said.

Federal regulators this month asked for public comment on GM's proposal to put fully autonomous cars – with no steering wheels or pedals – on public streets. 

GM wants "exemptions from U.S. vehicle safety rules largely written decades ago that assume human drivers would always be in control of a vehicle," Reuters reported. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will take public comment for 60 days "on a detailed list of questions about the issues surrounding deploying vehicles without human controls."

Contact Jamie L. LaReau at 313-222-2149 or jlareau@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @jlareauan. Read more on General Motors and sign up for our autos newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: GM plans to make new electric car, spend $300M, hire 400 workers in Lake Orion