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Editorial: Michigan can lead auto industry 2.0

The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — One of the messages coming through loud and clear at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference is how critical it is for Michigan to capitalize on the economic and business opportunities at its feet. Nowhere is that opportunity more prevalent than in the auto industry’s future of mobility and connected vehicles.

The state can lead this new industry, which includes not just new automotive development but huge strides in software, a reshaped national infrastructure and a significant interest in the booming sharing economy.

Now the state and business community must continue to support and encourage what this new industry requires to keep Detroit the hub of auto.

The Legislature last week introduced a bipartisan package of bills that would update 2013 laws to permit autonomous cars on public roads without anyone at the wheel. Tight formations of “smart” commercial trucks could also travel in unison at coordinated speeds.

The legislation would also allow Detroit’s Big Three — General Motors Co., Fiat Chrysler Automotive, and Ford Motor Co. — as well as other auto manufacturers to run their own networks of on-demand autonomous vehicles.

It’s a smart package that will help automakers test and research the new technology, and its timing is right.

It shows the state’s political community takes Michigan’s reliance on — and opportunities with — the future auto industry as seriously as it should, and that it’s willing to stay ahead of the curve.

Gov. Rick Snyder this week unveiled “Planet M,” a new campaign to elevate Michigan as the hub of mobility innovations and ideally lead to greater business investment and jobs in the state.

As the federal government begins making investments in new infrastructure to house autonomous and connected vehicles, Michigan must play a critical role. That will require collaboration between automakers and local and state governments.

“This is going to be a true public-private partnership,” said Sen. Gary Peters, who has taken a lead role in pushing Michigan’s potential at the national level. “We have to work together.”

Detroit’s Big Three and other manufacturers with a Detroit presence have all recently entered partnerships to merge their skills with outside leaders in technology and innovation.

Earlier this year, General Motors invested $500 million in ride-sharing company Lyft. The company also just completed its acquisition of Cruise Automation, a San Francisco startup. Toyota also announced an investment in Uber, Lyft’s larger and more profitable rival.

Fiat Chrysler is partnering with Google to test self-driving technology in the recently rebranded Pacifica minivans. And that news coincided with Google’s announcement it will open a 53,000-square-foot development center in Novi for self-driving cars.

Ford also announced an $182 million investment to fund and collaborate on software development with San Francisco-based Pivotal. Bill Ford, the company’s chairman, said he wants to see Detroit become “mobility central.”

The only problem standing in the way of this region capturing the reshaped auto industry is talent availability. Manufacturers, suppliers and even dealerships are having trouble finding people with the skills necessary for these high-tech, in-demand jobs. Software engineers, who typically flock to Silicon Valley, can almost write their own salary if interested in a Detroit job.

But automotive executives, business leaders and lawmakers remain hopeful Michigan can be just as central to the next generation auto industry as Henry Ford and Detroit were to its very foundation. And with the right investments and support, it can.