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By the time you’re halfway through A.J. Baime’s book “The Arsenal of Democracy,” there’s no overstating the outsized role Detroit, its automakers and its people played in the allies winning World War II.

With prodding by FDR and arm-twisting by his people, General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and others transformed their auto assembly lines into producers of war matériel the likes of which the world had never seen. What followed, in victory, became Detroit’s “Golden Age.”

The city’s population reached its zenith of roughly 2 million by the early 1950s. The post-war United Auto Workers won pensions and health-care benefits that came to define the American middle class. And the metal this town produced over the next few decades became the stuff of dreams, the Mustangs and Camaros, Chargers and Corvettes and so much more that will roll Michigan’s most fabled avenue in the 24th annual Woodward Dream Cruise.

Now, there are all sorts of uglies those days produced, too: union-management confrontation; intensifying racial strife and segregation as would-be workers streamed to Detroit for work in its growing auto industry; affluence that begat arrogance and mediocrity; a toxic pride preceding inexorable decline and bankruptcy.

Those facts don’t minimize a historic reality: key cultural totems that came to define 20th-century American society were made in Detroit, much of it tied to its cars. A question worth asking as Detroit’s finest rides cruise Woodward this weekend is what this town and its defining industry will contribute to the second automotive century.

The answer is not at all certain. Not because Detroit's automakers are trailing the competition or hopelessly clinging to a glorious past that is just that — the past. It's because they're standing astride a Great Transition every bit as transformative as Henry Ford's Model T rolling off his assembly line, and few know where that transition will lead.

The great shift is likely to take longer than its most ardent boosters may be willing to concede. Especially if their great hope, Tesla Inc. Chairman Elon Musk, proves a visionary long on vision, short on execution and devoid of executive judgment — witness his tweets about taking the automaker private drawing scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The transportation revolution of mobility, autonomy and electrification is coming, but it won't arrive unchallenged. The innovation powering self-driving vehicles and their technological promise are on a collision course with powerful forces: embedded emotion, consumer acceptance and government regulation that makes the industry's cars, trucks and SUVs among the world's most regulated consumer products.

Negotiating that thicket is likely to prove more complicated than placing a smartphone in every pocket because lives are at stake. And in that respect, the Detroit Three and foreign rivals arguably are better equipped to shoulder regulatory burdens than barely regulated tech heavyweights.  

Ol' Henry wouldn't recognize the place. Neither would the gearheads who birthed the Corvette for GM or the Mustang for Lee Iacocca. Evangelists for Auto 2.0 often fail to fully appreciate that the industry's second century will be forced to reckon with the regulatory regime and litigious society built over its first 100 years.

Neither will vaporize in the wonderfulness of autonomy. They instead will be turbo-charged, especially if liability transfers from human drivers to corporations with a lot more money than the average driver. 

And, second, a car that's summoned by a smartphone app to pick you up at a restaurant and deliver you home won't stoke emotional fires in most consumers — the same kind of intensity powering vintage Detroit cruisers. Will consumers succumb because the tech gods say they must?

Don't bet on it. Implicit in the techification of life is a potential surrender of choice. How many times has some techie friend or relative reminded you, imperiously, that "there is no such thing as privacy anymore?" Or its natural corollary, freedom?

They're mistaken, for now, anyway. A century ago, Detroit's industrialists harnessed their curiosity, entrepreneurialism and technical know-how to build a new industry. It put the world on wheels and delivered freedom to everyday people — a gift worth celebrating this weekend on Woodward.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(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.

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