Howes: Mich. closing perception gap in bid for Auto 2.0

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

In the push to claim leadership in Auto 2.0, Michigan actually may be in a stronger position than previously thought, suggest new survey results to be released Wednesday at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto Summit.

More than 2,200 facilities are devoted to automotive research, design and engineering across Michigan — far more than the 375 widely touted by the government and industry officials positioning the state as the heart of the North American auto industry.

And a new Automobility Career Perception Survey finds the Detroit-based industry given up for dead less than a decade ago is perceived to once again offer opportunity and advancement. More than half the young adults age 17-24 said they would consider a career in the auto industry, up 14 points from a similar survey in 2014.

A rising 42 percent of parents and school counselors would recommend young people pursue a career in the auto industry, compared to just 23 percent three years ago. Perceptions that the industry is growing are up, evidence that prolonged profitability and the push into mobility, autonomy and electrification are changing the Old Economy industry’s image.

It should. Depending on the model, a new car today can carry 10 million or so lines of code, far more than a jet fighter or a garden-variety smartphone. The platforms on wheels don’t just use technology to communicate; they use it to monitor myriad points of engine performance, safety systems like adaptive cruise and braking, even quasi-autonomous driving.

“We need the auto companies to look just like the tech companies — high-tech, global and growth,” Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, said in an interview Tuesday. “Things change. You either grow or die. You cannot stay the same. That’s not the way things happen.

“And this mobility world is an inflection point for Detroit and Michigan. Our ability to go on an upward curve on that inflection point is going to make or break us. Really what it comes down to is the digitalization of our economy.”

Perceptions are changing because reality is changing. The Detroit-based industry that saw two of its three automakers collapse into federally induced bankruptcy, even as such major suppliers as Delphi Corp. and Lear Corp. sought Chapter 11 protection, is markedly different than what brought the industrial Midwest to the verge of economic collapse.

The shift has the markings of permanence. General Motors Co. is exiting such major global markets as India, Russia, even Europe itself, to concentrate on boosting margins to fund big bets on electric vehicles, self-driving technology and mobility services like its Maven ride-sharing brand.

Detroit’s No. 1 automaker is beginning to persuade investors that it — not Silicon Valley darling Tesla Inc. — is the smart play to hit the market first with self-driving cars. And to be able to manufacture them in volume and with industry-leading quality.

GM’s former parts unit, Delphi Automotive PLC, split into two companies this week. Aptiv PLC will focus on electronics, smart mobility and autonomous driving, and Delphi Technologies PLC will extend its expertise in next-generation internal-combustion engines and after-market sales.

Delphi’s wager: that the mega-trends behind the deep techification of cars, trucks and transportation are not passing political and social moments. They’re a watershed for an industry facing the most revolutionary change since Henry Ford rolled the first Model Ts off the moving assembly line.

Ford Motor Co., chasing rival GM into China with pledges this week to introduce 15 new electric vehicles there over the next eight years, at the same time is renovating prime downtown real estate near its Dearborn headquarters. The goal: to make its neighborhood more attractive to the kind of young, tech-savvy talent it needs to straddle today’s auto industry with tomorrow’s.

Michigan leads the nation, by far, in autonomous vehicle testing sites, and claims as many such projects as the entire country of Japan. The American Center for Mobility, a public-private test facility carved from a corner of historic Willow Run Airport, is set to officially open as early as this month.

All of it, and so much more, are markers that the distinction between the lower-margin auto industry and higher-margin high-tech industry is increasingly artificial ... at least to those willing to take a second look.

And that means the real competition for talent transcends simple-minded caricature, one reason the likes of Ford, and its rivals, are angling to change the way they’re perceived — and act. Because they have to.

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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.