Detroit Is Becoming the Silicon Valley of Smart Mobility Tech

March 5, 2018

By Marcus Amick

Silicon Valley might be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of groundbreaking technology, but there’s another major tech revolution underway some 2,300 miles east. 

Building on decades of experience putting the world on wheels, Michigan has been busily establishing its own reputation as a place for high-tech innovation, from engineering the next level of electric batteries to the development of driverless ride-sharing vehicles. It’s a shift that’s quickly transforming the Detroit-anchored manufacturing hub, long known for its growling muscle cars and massive luxury SUVs, into a burgeoning tech spot that’s poised to drive the future of mobility.

The area’s transformation into a hotbed for mobility ideas is being driven by an expansive partnership across the state with car companies, automotive suppliers, universities, local agencies, startups and others in the public and private sectors, which has created a research and development ecosystem unlike any other in the world.

Playboy recently had a chance to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at some of the collaborative efforts that are leading the charge, touring places like the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and University of Michigan’s Mcity.

Launched in 2016, TRI aims to bridge the gap between research and product development in the mobility space, spanning from artificial intelligence to cutting-edge robotics. The Ann Arbor-based Mcity, which opened in 2015, brings together leaders from the auto sector, government and academia to work on new innovations for practically every facet of self-driving vehicle technology, from pedestrian detection systems to connected vehicles. In fact, later this year, Mcity will launch operations for what is believed to be the first fully autonomous shuttle to be used on a college campus to transport students, faculty and staff.

Michigan also just celebrated the opening of the American Center for Mobility (ACM), a state-of-the-art proving ground for connected and automated vehicle technology. The 500-acre site will provide researchers and engineers with real-world driving dynamics when testing driverless vehicles, and includes a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections and roundabouts.

At the U-M Energy Institute Battery Lab, researchers are working on ways to develop cheaper and longer-lasting energy-storage devices that will make automobiles more efficient in the future. Even the Michigan-based pizza company Domino’s has jumped into the fray, teaming up with Ford Motor Co. to conduct a pilot project in Michigan, where pizza deliveries were made with an autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid, and customers were able to use GPS technology to follow their delivery vehicle with an upgraded version of Domino’s Tracker system. Ford is now revving up to apply the lessons learned in the Michigan pilot project to launch its first self-driving vehicle business in Miami and Miami Beach, in a partnership with Domino’s and the food delivery service Postmates.

Trevor Pawl, Group VP of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), an organization helping to connect the dots in the state’s mobility strategy, says it only makes sense for Michigan to take a leading role in the space.

“Seventy-six percent of the American auto industry’s research and development happens in the state of Michigan. Ninety-six percent of the top 100 automotive suppliers in North America have a presence in Michigan. And Michigan has the greatest concentration of original equipment manufacturers in the world,” notes Pawl, who also serves as VP of PlanetM, an arm of MEDC that focuses solely on mobility issues. “If a new vehicle technology is going to be produced for the masses, that technology will likely run through an executive, designer, buyer or engineer in Michigan.”

According to PlanetM, Michigan has led the nation in mobility-related patents over the past five years, and is home to 49 connected and automated vehicle projects—more than any other state. The North American International Show, held in early January in Detroit, devoted an entire area to showcasing some of the strides the city is making in the tech-driven mobility space.

Playboy had a chance to get a more hands-on take on some of that progress, when given the opportunity to test drive the 238-mile-range Chevrolet Bolt EV in Los Angeles, a city in which one gets a true sense of the dire need for smarter mobility. All of the engineering, battery development and vehicle integration for the electric Chevy hatch, which was first introduced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), was done in Michigan. The surprisingly peppy Bolt EV, which starts at around $36,000, is now widely considered to be the go-to example on how to successfully pull off a “true” electric vehicle for the masses, a mark that even the Northern California-based Tesla has struggled with, despite its popularity as a brand.

Still, the idea, Pawl tells Playboy, is not for Michigan to compete with Silicon Valley, but rather to build a more cohesive partnership with California. “Both regions need one another,” he says. “California can leverage Michigan’s production expertise, and Michigan can benefit from Silicon Valley’s software prowess and startup ecosystem.”

For Detroit, the state’s shift into the area of mobility has become a pivotal part of the city’s local development strategy, as a means of solving transportation issues for Detroit’s nearly 700,000 residents, and luring more businesses and people to the city.

“Getting from A to B is one of the basic functions of life. And as we grow as a city, both for people that have been here for 50 years as well as potential new residents, both have that same need of getting where they need to go and doing it in a way that’s safe, fast and affordable. And that’s what we are striving to do,” says Mark de la Vergne, the City of Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation. “We need to continue to make investments in transit and make it easier for people to do it. We want this to be able to provide the mobility that allows people to get where they need to be, whether that’s their job, whether that’s a doctor’s appointment, whether that’s their school. It’s important part of life.”

The city’s partnerships with groups like Techstars, a global mentoring and funding network that has an automotive mobility arm in Detroit, are more specifically focused on fostering the other side of that development strategy, namely attracting new startups to the city.

To date, Techstars has bought in a group of more than 30 diverse companies from around the world that are focused on developing new automotive mobility technologies. “A handful came from Michigan. It’s almost all external, companies that actually wanted to come to Detroit,” says Ted Serbinski, managing director of Techstars mobility. “Startups know that if you want to be in automotive, you have to come here.”

Detroit’s positioning in Michigan’s growth as a major mobility development hub is also being fueled by longer-standing businesses such as the Lear Corporation, an automotive supplier that develops high-tech seating systems, which opened a satellite innovation center in the city’s downtown area in 2016.

Stephen Rober, VP of engineering at Lear, says the downtown location gives the company prime access to one of the most critical resources needed when it comes to automotive innovations. “This lets us tap more directly into the city’s infrastructure, the schools that are here, the local universities,” Rober tells Playboy. “It gives us more direct access…to that raw talent.”

Looking to make a more direct connection in its mobility strategy, Ford, which is headquartered on the outskirts of the city, is also gearing up to open a new office in downtown Detroit focused on autonomous and electric vehicles that will house more than 200 employees. The popular ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have been pushing to make a bigger play in Detroit as well. In addition, the University of Michigan startup May Mobility has been using Downtown Detroit as a major hub for testing its new driverless shuttles as part of its future growth strategy.

Of course, the city long known as the “car capital” of the world is nowhere close to abandoning its core tradition of crafting cool cars out of hunks of sheet metal, which has shaped the area for more than 100 years. But it’s clear that the region is more focused on redefining itself for the future of transportation, rather than reveling in its legacy.

“We fully design, integrate, engineer and build some of the most world-class vehicles. But mobility is changing and it has to,” says Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber MICHauto and vice president of the chamber’s Automotive & Mobility Initiatives. “These forces that are hitting us—where people are moving to cities, scarcity of resources…and everything in between—means that we need to use our base platform of innovation in automotive to transform our industry here in Michigan and Detroit to the way the world is consuming mobility.”

This article was originally published on www.playboy.com on March 5, 2018. 

PlanetM Landing Zone Amps up in First 90 Days, No Sign of Slowing Down

Logo for Planet M Landing Zone

Ninety days since the official launch of the PlanetM Landing Zone, efforts to attract and connect global mobility startups to the Detroit region are moving rapidly, with 18 global mobility startups, three Tier 1 OEM partners and a venture capital firm actively engaging at WeWork Merchant’s Row. The Chamber launched the PlanetM Landing Zone in October 2017, in partnership with the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

Connection Point for Global Mobility Startups

This first-of-its-kind space creates a physical entry point for startups and businesses to share and collaborate to drive innovation in next-generation mobility.

Global startups such as DriveSmart, based out of Madrid, the first company in the world specializing in smart driving metrics; and DERQ, a Dubai-based MIT artificial intelligence spinoff, have set up a presence at the Landing Zone.

National startups are also engaging in the space including Mapbox, a location data company, and Spatial, the world’s first human-driven artificial intelligence platform and graduate of the Techstars Mobility accelerator program.

Ford Motor Company and two additional Tier 1 OEMs have signed on as industry partners to actively engage with member startup companies and explore their technology and potential partnerships. With the momentum and attention the Landing Zone has built up in the first 90 days, the opportunities to drive collaboration and innovation in Detroit position our region for strategic growth in the automotive, IT, and mobility sectors.

CES and North American International Auto Show Provide New Leads

From Las Vegas to Detroit, the Chamber started the new year engaging with global mobility and technology startups to promote the Detroit region’s automotive and mobility assets. The Chamber’s business attraction efforts from CES and the North American International Auto Show led to Mighty AI, a tech startup based out of Seattle, Wash. establishing a presence at the Landing Zone and a dozen other global startups considering memberships.

As membership continues to grow, the Landing Zone is actively exploring ways to connect startups to the resources they need to succeed in the region. In the next coming months, aside from networking and curated events, members will also be able to engage and connect through a mobile application, and will also have access to a catalog of legal, tax and human resources services to help grow their businesses.

For more information about the PlanetM Landing Zone or to engage, please visit www.planetmlandingzone.com.

For more information on Forward Detroit, contact Marnita Harris at 313.596.0310. To view a full list of investors and past Investor Exclusive content, visit our Investor Resources page.

The Mobility State: Bold Steps Needed to Maintain Michigan’s Leadership in CAV Development

By Kelly Weatherwax

Positioning Michigan as the global epicenter of automotive and mobility technology is essential for the state’s future. That was the key message expressed during Forward Detroit and MICHauto’s Investor Briefing: Why Michigan Needs to Own Leadership in Mobility in September.

“This is the biggest opportunity of this generation, if not the next two and Detroit is not moving fast enough,” explained Chris Thomas, founder and partner of Fontinalis Partners LLC, during his keynote presentation. “We have the resources to make sure we are creating the next billion-dollar companies here in our backyard and if we are only testing we will not be groundbreaking.”

Additional speakers included: David Palmer, director of business partnerships for the Workforce Intelligence Network, who shared the recently released “Regional Plan for Connected and Automated Transportation Systems Assets and Initiatives”; and Trevor Pawl, group vice president of PlanetM, Pure Michigan Business Connect, and International Trade for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The briefing was moderated by Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“What happened to the music industry with the iPod is poised to happen to the automotive industry with mobility if we do not capitalize on this moment in time,” urged Pawl.
Additional key takeaways from the briefing included:

  • Mobility is broader than we think about; autonomous vehicles are only one part of a larger picture that includes all modes of transportation: air, land and sea.
  • Cybersecurity for autonomous vehicles is a must have and cannot be an afterthought in the conversation.
  • The number of adults with postsecondary degrees in Detroit is lagging considerably and more work is needed to improve education outcomes.
  • The Detroit region needs more highly-skilled workers to fill open positions in the automotive industry, otherwise, companies will look elsewhere.
  • There are currently more patents coming out of Silicon Valley in automotive-related technologies than in Detroit. This is concerning since the core automotive industry is in Michigan.
  • From progressive legislation to the nation’s first connected construction zone, Michigan is leading, but to win the race in connected technology more needs to be done.

Kelly Weatherwax is the integrated marketing manager at the Detroit Regional Chamber.

PlanetM Landing Zone Launches in Detroit, Will Draw Mobility and High-Tech Startups to the Region

In an effort to attract and connect more mobility-focused startups and other emerging high-tech, automotive-focused companies to the region, the Detroit Regional Chamber, Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) and WeWork launched the PlanetM Landing Zone in Detroit last week.

This first-of-its-kind space will serve as an environment where startups with autonomous, connected, electric and shared transportation technologies can connect with Detroit’s automotive and economic development network. This initiative will be housed at WeWork’s Merchant’s Row shared workspace location in Detroit. The PlanetM Landing Zone will occupy 40 to 50 workspaces with room for about 20 companies in the first year of operation.

Selected companies will have access to WeWork locations globally and a direct connection to the MEDC through its PlanetM and Pure Michigan Business Connect program, which helps connect local and global purchasers to suppliers of Michigan goods and services. Additionally, the Chamber will house staff members on-site who will provide services to these firms, that can help connect them to and grow more quickly in the market.

The PlanetM Landing Zone is the region’s latest tool to foster innovative technology development and talent growth, key focus areas of Forward Detroit. Creating a welcoming environment and platform for mobility entrepreneurs to establish a presence in the Detroit region is also a 2017 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do item.

“Our region must be overly competitive in next-generation mobility. To complete this ecosystem, we need to attract more tech pioneers and entrepreneurs to our region,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO for the Chamber.

Ford Motor Co. is the first automaker to join the partnership, while :DriveSmart, Spatial, SPLT and Sherpa Capital are currently tenants. Read coverage of the PlanetM Landing Zone opening in Crain’s Detroit Business, DBusiness and The Detroit News.

Positioning the Detroit Region as the Future Home of Amazon’s HQ2

With Detroit’s revitalization fresh on the minds of the business community, there is no better time to leverage the region’s world-class talent, assets and resources to attract leading global companies. With Amazon’s recent announcement to build a second headquarters, the Detroit Regional Chamber is doing just that.

A Collaborative Effort

As reported in the Detroit Free Press, the Chamber, along with the city of Detroit and the Michigan Economic Development Corp., is leading a broad coalition of business and government leaders to establish a proposal to make the case for Amazon’s expansion to the Detroit region. Through its best-in-class economic development expertise, the Chamber is well-suited to lead this effort.

From its annual State of the Region report to its automotive and mobility asset map and interactive Data Center, regional and statewide economic development partners often look to the Chamber to provide key information to site selectors and businesses interested in the Southeast Michigan market. Collectively, these assets provide an impactful tool for business attraction.

Read the latest stats and data presented by Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah to justify Detroit’s position as a contender for Amazon’s HQ2 in a letter to the editor published in Crain’s Detroit Business.


MORE: Read the latest stats and facts about how Michigan is positioned to lead the world in next-generation mobility.


Well-Positioned to Compete

Key to the coalition’s success in positioning Southeast Michigan as an ideal location for Amazon’s HQ2 will be meeting Amazon’s preferences and decision drivers as laid out in the request for proposal – namely real estate availability, incentives and a strong labor force.

  • According to the Chamber’s 2017 State of the Region, Detroit has availability of industrial and commercial real estate across the region.
  • Michigan’s business-friendly climate bodes well for economic incentives, from the recently passed “Good Jobs for Michigan” legislation, to the MI Thrive collection of bills incentivizing the redevelopment of transformational brownfields projects.
  • Detroit’s rich labor pool exceeds 2.5 million individuals, larger than 28 other states.
  • It is one of the fastest growing technology regions, leading peer regions in STEM occupation job growth at more than 18 percent since 2010.
  • The Detroit Metropolitan Airport is a world-class facility, recently being ranked No. 1 in business travel.
  • Detroit is an international gateway to business around the world. The region is one of the strongest export markets in the nation, especially with its ideal proximity to the Canadian market.

These are just a few of the ways the Detroit region is a standout contender for Amazon’s headquarters project.

The Chamber will continue to be the voice of business and will monitor the developments.

Michigan’s Mobility Assets Key Topic of Netherlands Delegation Visit to Detroit

On June 21, the Detroit Regional Chamber hosted a delegation of 15 representatives from the Netherlands’ most successful mobility companies to discuss smart mobility and smart city solutions. Delegates were eager to learn about Detroit’s landscape, its business environment, and its leadership and future mobility projects, particularly in autonomous driving.

The Netherlands are among the world’s leading developers of smart and sustainable cities. During the visit, the delegation met with Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, and Mark de la Vergne, chief of mobility for the city of Detroit, who shared the city’s strategy around mobility as a service (MAAS).

Additionally, on June 26, a second delegation from the Netherlands featuring key representatives from AutomotiveNL and Brainport Region joined the Chamber for a tour of Southeast Michigan, meeting with representatives from Ann Arbor SPARK, Ford Motor Co. and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The delegation also received a tour of the Macomb County Communications and Technology Center and DENSO to discuss the region’s automotive and mobility landscape. The delegation visits were part of an ongoing effort by the Chamber and its economic development partners to connect leading global technology firms with automotive OEMs and the supplier pipeline in the region.

Detroit’s Tech, Automotive Leadership Takes Spotlight During Israel Mission Trip

In a follow-up to a January fact-finding mission to Israel earlier this year led by Mark Davidoff, Michigan managing partner at Deloitte, and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, the Detroit Regional Chamber, along with economic development representatives from Oakland County, returned to the country in May to meet with automotive and manufacturing companies looking to expand into the U.S. market.

“Following our fact-finding mission in January, we saw an opportunity in Israel beyond the country’s robust cybersecurity sector to the larger automotive technology landscape,” said Justin Robinson, vice president of Business Attraction for the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“Our Business Attraction program has made a shift to recruit more early-stage automotive technology companies and we are looking to the markets that we believe hold the greatest potential to bring that technology to Southeast Michigan — Israel and Silicon Valley,” he added.

The trip, which took place May 15-19, was timed to coincide with Ecomotion 2017, a worldwide conference focused on promoting knowledge-sharing among companies in the smart transportation sector (pictured).

During the week, the delegation held 25 one-on-one meetings with venture capital companies, automotive accelerators and startups, to glean information on how to best support Israeli companies that have an eye toward the North American market. Primarily, Robinson said companies expressed the need for better connections to OEMs (such as Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co.) and Tier 1 and 2 suppliers.

“It was a great opportunity to listen and understand what we need to be doing as a region to better position ourselves to connect this new startup ecosystem with the established automotive ecosystem in Detroit,” he said.

There are roughly 6,000 startups in Israel today. As more pop up due to the country’s rich talent pool and government support for entrepreneurs, many companies are setting their sights to North America to scale their business quickly, Robinson said.

“Mobility is becoming one of the key areas of focus, which is a perfect opportunity for Michigan,” he said.

For more information on Forward Detroit, contact Marnita S. Harris at mharris@detroitchamber.com or 313.596.0310. To view a full list of investors and past Investor Exclusive content, visit our Investor Resources page.

Community Colleges’ Talent Pool to Play Large Role in Michigan’s Mobility Future

Education and talent experts engaged in a meaningful conversation on how to effectively attract and retain talent for Michigan’s mobility industry at the session titled “Creating the Talent Pipeline for the Mobility Workforce” hosted by Washtenaw Community College and Wayne County Community College District (WCCCD) on Thursday.

“We currently have more than 10,000 unfilled mobility jobs across the state that we must really look to fill to be able to compete,” said Roger Curtis, director of the Michigan Department of Talent and Economic Development.

Key Takeways

  • Attracting students to mobility-related career requires more education and easily accessible information.
  • Community colleges are necessary for the success of the auto-mobility industry as talent needs to grow.
  • The private and public sectors must collaborate to provide viable options and resources for students looking for mobility careers.
  • Community colleges offer an increased focus on robotics and supply chain management courses to assist in creating a pipeline for the mobility sector.
  • Improving Michigan’s education system will directly impact the state’s long-term economy.
  • Community colleges must not solely focus on graduation metrics, due to the nature of students and the aggressive needs of the mobility industry.
  • The state of Michigan has a skills gap and digital divide that is leaving thousands of technology-related jobs unfilled and putting more pressure on company’s looking to expand

The panel also included Rose Bellanca, president of Washtenaw Community College and Curtis Ivery, chancellor of Wayne County Community College District. It was moderated by Paul Krutko, president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.

Economic Impact of State’s Auto Suppliers Key Topic at Annual MICHauto Legislative Reception

MICHauto’s fourth annual Supplier Fair and Legislative Reception connected more than a dozen suppliers with state lawmakers to continue the discussion on the economic impact of suppliers across the state. The reception, held May 3 at Troppo in Lansing, featured more than 50 attendees, including 25 legislators and six legislative staff members.

Suppliers at the event included American Axle & Manufacturing, BorgWarner, DENSO International America Inc., HELLA Inc., Lacks Enterprise Inc., Magna International Inc., MAHLE Industries Inc., Phoenix Contact, Shiloh Industries, and Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America.

The evening included a presentation of MICHauto’s Legislator of the Year award to state Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, for his service to the state and his ongoing commitment to Michigan’s automotive industry. Horn was a key author of legislation that supports the testing and development of autonomous and connected vehicles in Michigan.

IAMC Spring Forum: Taking a Closer Look at Industrial Real Estate Trends

Last month, the Detroit Regional Chamber, in collaboration with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC), represented our 11-county region at the Industrial Asset Management Council (IAMC) spring forum, “Industrial Real Estate in the 21st Century” in Tampa (pictured). IAMC is the leading association of industrial asset management and corporate real estate executives and site selection consultants in the United States.

The Chamber spent April 8-12 meeting with site selection consultants and real estate professionals to promote Michigan’s manufacturing and talent assets.

“What’s enticing to a lot of these site selectors working with clients in the manufacturing and automotive industries is our high concentration of engineering talent,” said Brian Bilger, senior business development representative for the Chamber. “Additionally we’re seeing a lot more positive word-of-mouth marketing about Detroit’s revitalization. Everyone is curious about the momentum surrounding self-driving cars taking place in Michigan.”

Both the opening of the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti next year and the state’s passage of the SAVE (Safe Autonomous Vehicles) Act give Michigan a leg up in the competition for talent and global investment, Bilger said.

“Attending events like IAMC are critical to putting Detroit and Michigan at the top of the list for site selectors,” he said. “Michigan has a lot of competition from Georgia, Tennessee, Ohio and Pennsylvania but when it comes down to it, the brainpower is here. The amount of engineering and IT students we have is a major advantage.”

The forum also helped shed insight on key issues and trends voiced by industrial real estate developers, such as a growing trend of big box store closures.

“What’s the impact on the community when these stores close? From an adaptive reuse perspective, do these empty buildings meet the needs of companies looking to expand? What types of incentives are available? These are all questions we have to get ahead of when site selectors come to us with a proposed project,” Bilger said.

Bilger said following the forum, the Chamber has remained in contact with site selectors representing companies from Chicago, Dallas, New Jersey and South Carolina that are exploring options in Michigan. Several are planning visits to Mcity in Ann Arbor and participating in the state’s familiarization tour in September, designed to build interest in Michigan’s manufacturing and industrial real estate market.

For more information on Forward Detroit, contact Marnita S. Harris at mharris@detroitchamber.com or 313.596.0310. To view a full list of investors and past Investor Exclusive content, visit our Investor Resources page.