Investor: Mobility shifting auto industry

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Detroit -- The numbers don't lie: technology companies and automakers are investing billions in smaller companies involved in mobility. And those investments will change transportation within the decade.

That's at least according to Chris Thomas, co-founder and partner of venture capital firm Fontinalis Partners, LLC, which he started with Bill Ford Jr. in 2009. Speaking at a Society of Automotive Analysts conference at the Gem Theatre on Sunday during the Detroit auto show, Thomas told industry analysts that change is coming to the automotive and transportation industries sooner than some will say publicly.

Those who spoke before Thomas tried to make clear that the global auto industry is in the early stages of a monumental shift. Automakers have to contend with autonomous vehicles, electric powertrains and changes to how human beings use transit.

But some analysts said the shift won't be complete for over two decades. For all the talk of a self-driving future, no one thinks self-driving vehicles are going to replace human-piloted vehicles any time soon.

Thomas disagrees.

Robot cars won't boot human-piloted vehicles off the road within the next five years, but the industry is due for a disruption, he said. And Detroit could lead the charge if venture capitalists and big companies invest properly in companies with an eye on the future.

"Autonomy is going to change the lives of people in the next five years," Thomas said. "We are at an inflection point. We as a sector, as a region, must move together if we are going to win. If we don’t do that, I promise you that we’re going to be passed by."

He applauded Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan for efforts in pushing Detroit and Michigan to the front of autonomous vehicle testing. Thomas suggested that focusing only on testing misses several stages of development that Michigan could target.

"We have more people here that are currently creating what moves people and goods than anyone else," he said.

Fontinalis focuses on determining what the industry needs so that the firm can find startups to invest in and grow to meet a demand. Fontinalis has invested in several companies. One of them, nuTonomy, was just acquired by Delphi for $450 million in October.

While part of Thomas's keynote address focused on how to make smart investments in mobility, he shared an aggressive and confident view of how full autonomous vehicles will integrate into society.

There won't just be fleets of self-driving vehicles driving in geo-fenced areas, he said. That's a conservative and widely-accepted guess on how autonomous vehicles will work at first.

Not everyone wants to share those vehicles, Thomas said.

"All of us are going to want autonomous assets that are bespoke," he said.

But just because "new auto" will change the industry, it doesn't mean it's the end of the Motor City.

Thomas headquartered Fontinalis in Detroit for a reason, he said. He urged those gathered at the Gem Sunday to get serious about the future of the industry. It's already here, he said, because people are already developing the systems and technology for the future of transportation.

Said Thomas: 'We have a very special opportunity here in Detroit to drive the future of mobility."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau