Howes: GM’s driverless car play favors the hometown

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The symbolism cannot be denied.

Just weeks before another North American International Auto Show opens with its first-ever mobility exposition, General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra pre-empts the conversation. The automaker said Thursday it will test autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads and build the test cars in its Orion Township assembly plant.

General Motors Co. has said it will produce and test driverless Chevy Bolt vehicles in Michigan.

And they’ll start doing it next year. Take that, Elon Musk.

GM is using the city that put the world on wheels with the moving assembly line, that built the middle class, forged post-war prosperity and nearly lost it all, to make an unambiguous statement: becoming the hub for next-generation mobility means doing it.

Nothing says reality more emphatically in this business than autonomous testing vehicles rolling off a union-represented assembly line that otherwise assembles subcompacts. And few things say “New Detroit” more clearly than an amalgam of nuts, bolts, sheet metal and terabytes plying Michigan streets and highways.

The timing of this is no accident. It follows legislation signed last week by Gov. Rick Snyder that opens Michigan roads to testing of autonomous vehicles; buttresses the state’s claim to become the epicenter of self-driving vehicle development; signals to prospective engineering and software talent that GM is for real and playing for keeps in the mobility space.

It drops the news 90 minutes before an annual holiday reception, outflanking rivals and improving the likelihood that the news will get bigger media play than it might the first week of January at the CES tech trade show in Las Vegas or the week after that at the Detroit auto show.

It strikes a decidedly American political chord in the Age of Trump. Here’s an American company developing next-generation technology in the heart of the industrial heartland that improbably delivered Donald Trump to the White House. Not a bad way to divert inconvenient political attention from, say, investments in Mexico and China.

It shows traditional auto hands from Warren and Dearborn to all corners of the Detroit diaspora that self-driving vehicles are for real. It shatters the assumption that autonomous rides will “never” get enough traction to meaningfully replace everyday rides is as bogus as the certainty that China would never amount to much of a car market.

It demonstrates an advantage that GM believes will be critical in the race for autonomous leadership: the company (or companies) that can engineer, manufacture and deliver such vehicles with world-class quality and in large scale is likely to emerge a winner with both consumers and investors.

It closes the year much like GM opened it — with big, consequential news in an autonomous space that has “value creation” written all over it. The moves convey a sense that the world’s largest automaker is prepared to move quickly, to take risks and to challenge assumptions about how it operates.

To GM’s investment in Lyft Inc., its acquisition of Cruise Automation and its creation of the Maven ride-sharing brand can now be added evidence that the automaker will be assembling vehicles and testing them in its own backyard.

You want to flip the proverbial script — about the company on Wall Street, about whether Michigan can make a legitimate mobility play, about how Detroit has the makings to become a legit tech hub? This is one way to help do it.

“Why wait?” asks Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We need to do it now, and we need to do it fast. We put the world on wheels. We are going to be the place that helps define mobility for the future.”

One of them, anyway. That said, none of these moves by GM, or its rivals, or the Silicon Valley heavies playing in the mobility space, are likely to be the automotive equivalent of the “killer app.” But they help.

So does the fact that the Detroit-based auto industry, the state of Michigan and business groups are demonstrating a remarkable degree of alignment around a suite of technologies (and ideas) that have yet to be proven on roads or in the marketplace.

There’s risk there, to be sure, to earnings, revenue and market share. But this town learned the hard way that choosing to avoid risk creates even bigger risks that prove impossible to manage.

Not this GM, not in the autonomous space. And that’s encouraging.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.