Editorial: Motor City must preserve driver’s seat

The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s announcement last week that it intends to have fully autonomous vehicles on the road in five years is ambitious, and it underscores how critical it is for Detroit’s Big Three to lead the automotive industry’s future. The challenge is securing these jobs here in Michigan.

That future now rests on connectivity, mobility options and ultimately self-driving cars. Ford should be applauded for its efforts, regardless of where it is investing—in this case Silicon Valley. But if Michigan wants to keep the auto industry firmly rooted in the state, it’s going to have to supply the talent and infrastructure to attract those high-tech engineering jobs.

Ford’s plan to significantly expand its investments, office space and human capital in this California tech hub is a reminder that Detroit is not a sure bet.

A company as synonymous with Detroit as Motown, Ford will invest $75 million in Velodyne, a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of laser radar, as well as Civil Maps, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company with high-resolution mapping capabilities. It’s also making some international investments.

Additionally, the company will grow its Silicon Valley presence significantly. It will expand from one 30,000-square-foot building to three buildings totaling 180,000 square feet by the end of next year, and intends to double its staff there to 260 by the end of 2017.

Ford and other companies associated with the auto industry have highlighted the hiring challenges they face in Michigan and throughout the country. And they certainly haven’t stopped hiring in Michigan. But finding individuals with the right set of skills for the industry’s future — namely software engineers — is difficult.

While Ford is investing in the more traditional aspects of the industry in Detroit, with a new Dearborn campus and other plant improvements, it doesn’t seem to be expanding as much of its high-tech future here.

That should be a wake-up call. Despite progress being made with University of Michigan’s M-CITY, the American Center for Mobility and other research and development projects, the Motor City hasn’t secured its role in self-driving technology.

Ford, of course, isn’t alone in its new ventures among the Big Three. General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automotive have also announced significant investments in the future of ride-sharing and autonomous driving.

But Ford intends to develop fully autonomous vehicles that don’t require any driver input. Given the recent mishaps with Tesla’s partially autonomous vehicles, it could be wise to skip that phase altogether. State and federal laws will have to be changed to accommodate Ford’s plans, and that may be a holdup.

It’s also unclear what will sway Wall Street investors, who have shown interest in Tesla and other tech companies. Following its announcement, Ford’s stock actually dropped 0.7 percent. Investors have been similarly apathetic to news from GM about its innovations.

Regardless, innovative developments are critical for the Big Three. They must stay at the edge of the industry, no matter how record-breaking their profits continue to be in the traditional car market.

And Detroit should welcome and encourage those future investments.