Finley: Automakers owning high-tech

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Look what's happened to our stuffy old auto industry. It's unbuttoned its collar, tattooed its arm and slipped into a pair of spike heels. I'm not sure it's even wearing all of its underwear these days.

Cars have always been sexy. Now, making cars is hot. Real hot.

Watch out Silicon Valley, Detroit is riding your bumper. In fact, when it comes to leading edge technology, "there's no boundary between Detroit and Silicon Valley," says veteran automotive observer David Cole.

"This is the absolute example of an industry that is exploiting technology."

Walk around the floor of Cobo Center and it's clear that vehicle production is no longer all about the assembly line. It's also evident the automotive workforce has evolved well beyond the stereotypical divisions of laborers, engineers and bean counters.

I was at an auto show-related reception this week at a studio on Woodward Avenue, jammed with hip and stylish designers. These were car guys and gals, but they could have blended easily into any bar in SoHo. Few nerds in that crowd.

So much of what's on display at Cobo has little to do with the nuts and bolts of manufacturing. Drones are floating around the ceiling, and someday will be carrying parts around a factory.

An entire car is on display that was built inside a 3-D printer.

Over here, one group is extolling the future potential of connecting vehicles to the Internet. Over there, young entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on driverless cars are making their sales pitches. The imagination of what's possible with the next generation of automobiles is reminiscent of the space race.

We used to fret about the need to diversify Michigan's economy away from the auto industry, believing a broader array of jobs would place us less at the mercy of sales cycles.

But today auto-making is the most broadly diverse of industries. The people I bumped into at Cobo included video game designers, fashion mavens, computer programmers and even a filmmaker — all earning their living from making cars.

"There are some really cool jobs in this industry," says Cole, chairman of Auto Harvest, a nonprofit that helps advance technology.

Those cool jobs are drawing a lot of talent to Michigan, as the creative class realizes the auto companies provide the perfect outlet for their talents. They don't have to go to California to reshape the world, or to push the limits of what the human brain can conceive.

The auto industry will be the focus of the most exciting technological advancements, as automobiles continue to transform from placid machines to highly intelligent transportation pods.

With the talent to make that happen located here, other industries that need the same high-tech expertise will follow. Diversifying Michigan's economy will take care of itself.

Auto manufacturing promises to transform the 21st century in the same way it did the 20th.

And as it does, Detroit and Michigan will be very thankful that it resisted the temptation to jump ship.


Follow Nolan Finley at, on Twitter at @nolanfinleydn, and watch him at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays on "MiWeek" on Detroit Public TV, Channel 56.