Buss: Detroit can own future of driverless cars

Kaitlyn Buss
The Detroit News

Snow and ice in April. Gritty factories. Potholes. These things that make Detroit proverbially unattractive make it the perfect place for a future automotive industry centered on semi-autonomous — and eventually fully driverless — vehicles.

There’s a competition brewing between Detroit and Silicon Valley for the auto industry 2.0, which seems to rest on the vague new-age notion of “mobility,” connectivity, and the Internet of Things.

That new industry requires everything Michigan offers: engineers to design the vehicles, factories to build them in, and access to world-class testing, research and development in a locale with all kinds of inclement weather.

The state even has Willow Run Airport, a 335-acre site ripe for being developed into an unmatched testing track, the American Center for Mobility, for the cars of tomorrow.

“That facility has so many competitive advantages,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters told me.

The Democrat from Bloomfield Township is working aggressively to get some or all of the potential $4 billion in federal funding that might soon be available for driverless research. California and Nevada are the biggest competitors, but Michigan should fight tooth and nail for it.

Detroit has battled to retain its most important industry before, but this fight requires a holistic approach to where both autos and technology are both headed. Detroit has to stay ahead.

In fact, the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show — where GM CEO Mary Barra debuted Chevy’s fully electronic Bolt and the buzz of vehicle connectivity was robust — stole some of the thunder that should have rumbling at the Detroit show just a week later.

But the state’s industrial grit will be as critical to its future as it’s been to its past, and is perhaps its greatest advantage, despite how ultra high-tech these new cars will be.

“We as a society have said that if you get your hands dirty, you’re not cool,” says Dave Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. “But manufacturing is going to be increasingly viewed as an important area.”

Detroit certainly has the manufacturing infrastructure to sustain a future of autonomous vehicles. And it’s no stranger to these emerging technologies; there are more lines of code in the average car than in virtually every other computer system in the world.

The only thing it might lack is the talent to fill potential jobs. That’s no small problem, but it’s not unique. It’s something the auto industry wrestles with globally. Still, Michigan already has enough “brains” to win the battle with Silicon Valley.

Conventional wisdom would predict that region will steal the talent and investors, but this isn’t a conventional time. And that’s good for the Motor City.

Cole argues there’s a huge concentration of techies in California, but they’re also everywhere. And he believes the commoditization of technology has, in a sense, cheapened it. Cars offer the next element of value for companies like Google and Apple, both of which are pursuing autonomous driving aggressively.

That’s why Detroit might be critical for them. They still need the real estate to make these machines, which are much larger and more involved than a phone or watch. And facilities like a retrofitted Willow Run will only further attract needed talent, as well as help grow it here at home.

Much is still unknown about how exactly autonomous driving will unfold, but it’s clear it will require outside-the-box thinking. Fortunately Michigan’s traditional attributes could provide just the right fit.

Kaitlyn Buss is a senior editorial writer.