Uber planning technical facility in Metro Detroit

Posted on January 16, 2017

Uber, the fast-growing ride-sharing service, plans to open a technical center in Wixom during the first quarter of 2017 to help with the development of self-driving autonomous vehicles.

Shant Marakby, a former Ford Motor Co. executive who is now Uber’s vice president of global vehicle programs, said Uber’s ride-sharing business has caught on and continues to expand. “Mobility is being transformed around the globe. We really believe the transformation is happening. And it’s just the beginning,” Marakby said Wednesday during an appearance at the annual Automotive New World Congress.

Uber plans to open the technical center in Oakland County to work with both manufacturers such as Ford Motor Co., General Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles as well as the major suppliers based around Detroit, he said.

A lot of the sophisticated technology required for autonomous vehicles also comes from Detroit, so it only makes sense to put an Uber technical center in Detroit, added Marakby, who did not offer any details on how much Uber will spend on the center or how large the staff will be.

“Detroit continues to be the home of the auto industry’s technical capability,” said Marakby, who noted a lot of the talent required to put autonomous vehicles on the road are also residents in the Detroit area, as are the major auto manufacturers and “Tier One” suppliers.

“A lot of the talent comes from Detroit,” he said.

Marakby also emphasized Uber, which is based in California, is not planning to make its own cars. “Uber is planning to work with (manufacturers),” he said.

“The auto industry is a very special industry and a very difficult industry. We want to work with tier one suppliers getting the technology into these cars,” said Marakby, who said Uber also is preparing to open a development center the Detroit-suburb of Wixom.

GM, Ford, FCA, Google as well as Delphi and Denso are all building up their autonomous vehicle technical units.

Uber already has a presence in the Detroit area since it has more than 5,000 drivers, including at least one in every zip code, and more than 250,000 users.

“You’ve got to adapt to the city,” said Marakby, noting the use of Uber’s services has also increased rapidly in Los Angeles, Paris and London. “Peak use is not in the mid-day or early in the morning but at midnight. One of the things it allows is for people to take a safe option. Fatalities from drunk driving dropped by 5 percent in California,” he added.

Marakaby said factors such as congestion, pollution and the recognition that vehicles are an under-utilized asset are driving the move towards ride-sharing. The world’s roads, streets, garages and parking lots now hold more than 2 billion cars on the road.

“That’s more than the population of China and Europe combined. But they sit idle 96 percent of the time,” Marakby said, offering ride-hailing services such as Uber a unique opportunity. In some larger cities, up to 25 percent of the younger millennial residents don’t own a vehicle, he said.

In addition, Uber’s car-pooling service, which encourages users to share rides, is helping reduce congestion in the crowded San Francisco Bay region.

“If you look at Manhattan, about one-third are actually going outside the city, only 10 percent of the taxi rides went outside the city, so you are growing mobility. In London, over 30 percent of the rides end within 200 yards of a tube station,” Marakby said.