Overshadowed by the continuing Flint water crisis is a public policy push trained squarely on the state’s economic future: making Michigan a meaningful mobility center.
It should be. The state that put America on wheels, that delivered prosperity and freedom before almost losing it all seven years ago, is aiming to convert into reality a solid chance to claim a commanding chunk of next-generation autonomous and connected-car development.
All it takes are three things this state too often lacks: first, non-partisan commitment to a long-range vision and a public-private partnership that tries to leverage the assets of the Detroit auto industry, its supply base, major research universities and the human capital embedded in all three.
Second, understanding that the traditional auto industry is changing fundamentally. Designing, building and marketing cars, trucks and SUVs will remain necessary to the industry, but doing so will no longer be sufficient for business success or investor capital. Urban congestion, the cost of ownership and limited need to own wheels are driving entrepreneurial trends threatening to imperil the industry’s profit model if left unanswered.
And, third, cold recognition that the Motor City is not entitled to its share of what Ford Motor Co. estimates to be a global transportation services markets valued at $5.4 trillion. Michigan’s share — for its engineering prowess, for its auto industry and the people who work in it — must be earned in a pitched competition with global industry rivals, other U.S. cities and the sharpies of Silicon Valley.
“This is really a global race to be leaders in this space,” says Glenn Stevens, vice president of MICHauto and strategic development for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “Economic development and the growth of any region in the world is always a competition. I would not limit it to Silicon Valley because right in our own country we have Austin, we have Boston, we have other states like Colorado and Virginia that have been stepping up to take leadership in connected vehicle development.”
He continues: “We are uniquely positioned. Our state’s and our region’s economic health depends on capitalizing on the fact that there is no greater concentration of” automaker “presence, global automotive supplier presence, research and development from technology and engineering firms and university research anywhere in the world that you can bring together to create a cluster like Michigan’s automotive industry.”
However embattled Gov. Rick Snyder is by the Flint water crisis, he gets this. He understands that Michigan’s relevance in a 21st-century transportation industry depends on the state’s ability to encourage cooperation and investment because fewer people are expected to buy and own their own vehicles, shaking a core assumption of the industry.
Whether the Legislature or the folks familiar with a traditional auto industry making traditional products to challenge traditional competitors get it is another question entirely. The truth is Michigan remains home to a cornerstone industry revived by grit, smart and the help of American taxpayers; other countries and states would take gladly it, and reap the talent, if they could get it.
Nothing is guaranteed. Capital is more mobile today than any time in human history, and almost anything or any expertise can be had for a price, be it Roush Industries Inc.’s contract to build prototype cars for Google Inc. or Tesla Motors Inc.’s play for Grand Rapids-based tool-and-die shop to deliver Michigan craftsmanship to one of the industry’s most touted stars.
The historic roots in Michigan of today’s industry are no assurance its new iteration will be here tomorrow. That’s the clearest rationale behind the state-backed American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, the University of Michigan’s MCity site for testing connected- and autonomous-vehicle technologies and the Michigan Mobility Initiative:
Build on the assets of a leaner, more productive, industry. Understand that rapid technological evolution, the personalization exemplified by customizable smartphones and changing demographics are forcing the industry and its home state to confront new competitive threats.
“After you’ve gone through bankruptcy,” says an industry veteran close to the fast-paced connected- and autonomous car efforts, “you can’t go into denial about how the industry might change and put you out of business. You can’t win by just using traditional auto industry skills.”
Or by discounting the competition and assuming industry leadership belongs to the place where Henry Ford created the moving assembly line and General Motors Co. produced the Chevrolet Bolt electric car. It doesn’t, and the speed of change won’t make it any easier.
Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.