Howes: Michigan's automakers compete for self-driving lead

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. and its partner, Argo AI, navigate the unpredictable downtown streets of downtown Miami in a self-driving vehicle.

Where Detroit’s automakers build today’s cars, trucks and SUVs may be capturing the attention of the commander-in-chief, but it’s the race to realize the electric future that will pick winners and losers.

In that contest, the state that put America on wheels is proving competitive, according to two new reports. And the companies leading Michigan into the Auto 2.0 spaces of mobility, autonomy and electrification — principally General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. — are considered leaders in autonomous driving development, tracking consistently with Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo LLC, a partner of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV.

“Rooted in a century of design engineering and manufacturing expertise, Michigan is leading the automotive industry’s evolution from traditional manufacturer to the research, testing, and deployment of next-generation mobility technology,” says a report to be released Tuesday by the Detroit Regional Chamber's MICHauto unit.

"From key public-private partnerships to being nationally competitive in mobility-related patents, Michigan is the place for testing and deployment of connected, automated, and electric vehicles. Within the next 30 years, fully autonomous vehicles will be commonplace on roadways across the United States."

Michigan is ranked No. 1 in connected vehicle projects funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Business annually funds $12 billion in automotive research and development across the state. Michigan-based auto plants last year assembled 17 percent of all the vehicles built in the United States. More than 500 miles of roadway are ready for testing connected vehicles.

The trends are likely to accelerate, quickly, as automakers and major suppliers amp spending on electrification. Over the next decade, says Jim Tobin, chief marketing officer of Magna International Inc., automakers and suppliers are expected to invest $300 billion on electrification, up from just $90 billion a year ago.

"There's still a lot of unknowns," he said in an interview in advance of MICHauto's annual meeting Tuesday, adding that when the technology will "hit mainstream" in the U.S. market ranks among the biggest uncertainties. "The China market by far will be the biggest consumer of battery-electric vehicles near-term."

Another unknown: the ability and willingness of state government, academia and business to cooperate on sharpening the state's competitive edge. Rival states down south, chiefly those that have landed foreign auto investment as the Detroit Three contract to the industrial Midwest, are hungry for the next-generation Auto 2.0 investment that Michigan too casually assumes to be its birthright.

It isn't. And the chronic inability of state political and business leaders, irrespective of whose party controls the Legislature or governor's office, to coalesce around an agenda that improves academic performance in public schools and repairs roads and bridges undercuts its ability to attract and retain the talent needed to compete in Auto 2.0.

"We've got all the tools," Tobin said. "How do we put the team and the cooperation together? We've just gotten a little complacent here. Do we rest on our laurels? I think we do a little bit."

Just a bit. Nearly a decade of rebounding employment, expanding auto profits and a torrid sales pace is beginning to slow just as the intensity in the Auto 2.0 race increases. And Detroit's competition no longer is the usual suspects in Germany and Japan; now it's China and Silicon Valley's heaviest heavyweights armed with far more cash and corporate cultures that prize innovation and risk-taking.

Don't count out the Motor City yet. In a report detailing the "leaderboard" in automated-driving vehicles, Navigant Research says GM's GM Cruise LLC unit and Ford's Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC unit are vying with Waymo for leadership in the space.

"The most significant barriers to adoption of automated driving are public acceptance, cost and legal issues," Navigant said. "There are also widespread concerns about potential job losses associated with a shift away from human drivers. News reports about accidents involving test vehicles or with partially automated systems have also led to concerns about safety."

And that's where the boring, traditional auto industry might have an edge. It's accustomed to engineering, building and selling arguably the most regulated consumer product in today's market; accustomed to passing legal muster or paying the consequences; accustomed to integrating the latest consumer electronics, cloud computing and driver-assistance systems into cars, trucks and SUVs.

"We will integrate this technology as such," Tobin said, "so that it doesn't look like a science experiment driving down the street."

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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.