Opinion: Detroit must become the great arsenal of mobility

Chris Thomas

Today, in the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan, a threat is growing outside our borders that if left unchecked will leave us wholly unable to defend our position as the automotive capital of the world. More importantly, this threat will undermine and invalidate any effort to stake a leadership claim in the Next-Generation Mobility industry, which in time will completely envelop the automotive sector as it becomes one of the dominant global industries of this century. 

What is this threat? It is the creation and domiciling of talent far afield from Detroit in specialties that will be critical to the success of the Next-Generation Mobility industry — namely robotics, artificial intelligence, connectivity, electrification, cybersecurity and computer software. An overwhelming majority of this talent as it is currently constituted is unaware of the many benefits Michigan has to offer will not readily consider a physical move to Metro Detroit or a position with a company based here. 

As a result, the overwhelming majority of women and men who will create the self-driving vehicles, new services, apps and software that will power the movement of people and goods in the future will no longer spring from our part of the world. They will come from the places where the universities, labs and institutes that create them are based and where the companies that employ them (and they themselves start) will be formed. They will come from the coasts and overseas – and there they will stay.

What does this mean? I would forcefully posit this means if we seek to compete in, let alone lead, the Next-Generation Mobility sector we must develop the technological and leadership talent that will be required to do so here at home.

We know that the Next-Generation Mobility industry will require different types of engineers, and more of them.

According to recent research from the Boston Consulting Group and Detroit Mobility Lab, autonomous vehicles and electrification alone will create 120,000 new jobs in the U.S. over the next 10 years. Perhaps more critically, the demand for an additional 30,000 new jobs within the Next-Generation Mobility sector will create a need for computer-focused degrees that outpaces the current supply of graduates by six times.

In contrast with traditional, single-focus engineers with mechanical, electrical or industrial degrees, the mobility industry will need a diverse pool of workers with skills across software development, artificial intelligence, data sciences, systems thinking and robotics. And, crucially, hands-on experience.

So far, automakers have tackled this challenge by acquiring or setting up subsidiary mobility companies led by founders with specialized experience. General Motors’ acquisition of San Francisco based Cruise Automation, Ford’s $1 billion commitment to Pittsburgh-based Argo AI and Aptiv’s purchase of Boston based nuTonomy have all been successful at boosting internal talent pools. But our domestic auto industry will not solve the problem of a lack of talent in Metro Detroit proper simply by hiring smart folks from Pittsburgh and Palo Alto.

Further, and of great importance, CEOs from autonomous vehicle companies big and small relay deep concern at the increasing challenges of hiring team members at the pace required by their plans for growth. Locating offices near universities with traditionally strong engineering programs has bridged the gap to date, but that is increasingly no longer sufficient to find the talent they need.

Where will they find the talent they need? Unfortunately, at present it is not Metro Detroit. Without a doubt we have many of the finest mechanical and electrical engineers in the world, but if you compare our current talent pool and educational offerings of Next-Generational Mobility specialties relative to those of the coasts and other major mobility technology hubs overseas, it’s not even close. 

Make no mistake, Michigan is home to a number of top-ranked universities and community colleges that are committed to tackling this challenge by offering new courses and degree specializations. The University of Michigan’s Robotics Institute and Washtenaw Community College’s Advanced Transportation Center come to mind, among various other initiatives underway across the state. Programs like this are encouraging and must continue. But they are not nearly enough.

We must accelerate the graduation rates of the mobility engineer of the future who will possess knowledge of software development, artificial intelligence, data sciences, systems thinking and robotics from day one. To do so, and ensure an overwhelming majority of them remain in our region, we must create an institute in the city of Detroit with the mission of graduating the very best mobility engineers in the world. We must produce a workforce that will allow us to be a powerhouse of manufacturing and mobility might in the nation and around the globe.

We must become the great arsenal of mobility.

I am calling for a regional and statewide commitment to create this institute and produce the talent infrastructure we will require to build the future of mobility. I have absolute confidence that if we have the will to lead that this cause will greatly succeed, that we will become the arsenal of mobility and that Detroit will continue to be the name and place synonymous with the innovative movement of man and machine.

Chris Thomas is the co-founder and president of the Detroit Mobility Lab.