Michigan ponders its automotive future in the connected age

Few people take cars more seriously than Michiganders. I've been to the home of BMW in Germany. I've been to Kia's HQ in Korea. I've seen Honda's goods in Japan. No one, from the factory worker to the executive in her pinstriped suit, is more obsessed with cars than Michigan Inc. That's why it was interesting this week to see the state have a moment of introspection four hours north of the Motor City on a scenic island called Mackinac.

Ironically, cars are not allowed here. Normally a tourist trap, it played placed host to the Mackinac Public Policy conference this week. While politics took center stage ( I may be the only person here not considering a run for governor) the evolution of the industry through connectivity and data was a theme of the conference.

If you're reading this in New York, Silicon Valley, or one of the automotive heartlands listed above, you do care about this. If Michigan rethinks its approach to the car business – and makes moves to become more competitive – that affects you the consumer and enthusiast. It's jobs. It's technology, and it's a competition to see who's going to be the leader. More than a century after Henry Ford made mass production a thing, more than 70 years after Detroit's Arsenal of Democracy helped win World War II, and nearly a decade after the historic bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, the car business is on solid footing again and looking to the future.

What's next? Michigan is still home to thousands of auto workers, tech centers (including gleaming facilities built by Toyota and Hyundai), and the headquarters of the three American carmakers. Just because the economy is good doesn't mean it's a given connected cars and mobility advancements are going to come from this state. A lot of it's not. Tesla, Uber, Lyft, Faraday Future, and other transportation mediums have spouted up other places.

Michigan leaders and Detroit's carmakers understand this reality. Reflecting on the past means admitting the future is not a given, a key undertone this week in Mackinac. It's about using existing resources, like skilled labor, to move forward. "We do have the number of technicians and technical expertise here in this state," says Stephen Polk," conference chair and former CEO of auto data firm R.L. Polk & Co.

To that end, Ford is placing increased emphasis on a division called Smart Mobility, which is an in-house unit focusing on autonomy, connectivity, and forward-looking ideas. It's "evolution of the transportation system as a shared services model," says John Kwant, Smart Mobility vice president. The division was unveiled in March 2016. In May, Ford tapped Smart Mobility's head, Jim Hackett, to be its new CEO.

Michigan also recently announced plans to install infrastructure on a busy part of Interstate 75 north of Detroit to test car-to-grid technologies in partnership with auto supplier 3M. As part of a longer play, Dassault vice president Ingeborg Rocker suggested Detroit, which has struggled for decades with developing a mass transportation system, could skip more conventional means and go straight to a larger scale autonomous-vehicle test.

It's not about being parochial. The guy in San Francisco or Atlanta might not care where his car his made and doesn't care about jobs in Michigan. But if that car, or thinking more broadly – mobility solution – offers him something compelling, something different, he might start to think about Michigan's signature industry in a positive way that affects his life. Like past generations did.

Nationally, many might not know GM has an alliance with Lyft, or Ford has plans to produce an autonomous vehicle for ride sharing in 2021. FCA has the industry's only plug-in electric minivan, the Chrysler Pacifica. Explaining these advancements is crucial. "We are still the head of the auto industry," Polks says. "At the end of the day, the products are going to prove the message."

Perhaps it's working. Ride-sharing startup SPLT moved its headquarters from New York to Detroit to be a part of the Techstars new business incubator. A key reason for the move: The region's knowledge base in connectivity. "What we see is a new shift in mobility, where access and automation is as important as how you get there," SPLT co-founder and CEO Anya Babbitt says.

Who embraces this shift fastest and in the most compelling manner will prove to be the winner. The competitors from Europe, Asia, and Silicon Valley are formidable, and clearly, Michigan is still in the fight, too.

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