Detroit: America’s Tech Hub Since 1903

The Motor City’s comeback arrives at the intersection of cutting-edge tech and a spirit of collaboration

Sync Magazine

By Adam Kivel & Danny Ciamprone

December 19, 2016

“There’s a really strong creator culture here and right now you just see it exploding. We’re seeing a lot of companies come here, new startups and innovative people moving here because of that environment for them to thrive and grow. You can’t find parking. The demand for spaces to live is off the charts. The number of restaurants is growing, the music scene continues to grow, the arts scene continues to grow.”

This picture of a booming urban community may sound similar to a tech hub; perhaps San Francisco or another area of Silicon Valley comes to mind. But those are the words of Glenn Stevens, vice president, MICHauto and strategic development, of the Detroit Regional Chamber. Considering the popular narrative of the Midwestern city, this rosy picture might come as a shock.

In fact, it’s a far cry from July of 2013, when Detroit filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy case in the country’s history, with courts citing the city’s nearly $20 billion debt. But anyone harping on that well-trod story has been ignoring the city’s tech boom, an influx of jobs, industry, and venture capital that is changing the face of Detroit.

In order to grow into a thriving tech community, though, Detroit faced quite the challenge. “We’ve been through some very difficult times here,” Stevens says. “In Detroit with the bankruptcy, through the recent situation with Flint, across the state with the downturn and the loss of jobs.” Despite these immense obstacles, the IT industry remained strong, only growing stronger despite the bankruptcy and related concerns.

The city government itself faced many challenges. In the fall of 2013, the Obama administration, through the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), put together a group of five municipal CIOs to visit Detroit to look at what was happening in the civic tax base. Following that year’s mayoral election, the incoming mayor chose one of those individuals, Beth Niblock, to become the next CIO of Detroit. Since taking the job, Niblock has taken on the important role of making big changes in Detroit’s tech infrastructure as well as the city’s connection to its constituents.

“Our goal is for us to have the ability to interact with our citizens and businesses however they choose to interact,” she says. “There are still people who don’t have a lot of faith in the system, and part of what we want to do is restore confidence that we are a well-functioning government.” Part of that involves a newly upgraded computerized dispatch and records management for police, fire, and EMS. They’ve even implemented an app that shows Water and Sewage Department employees and first responders which hydrants are working at full capacity before they reach the scene of an emergency.

But Detroit wasn’t always facing such an uphill battle. “When you go back about one hundred years to the early part of the twentieth century, this was the Silicon Valley of that time,” says Gabe Karp, partner at Detroit Venture Partners. “The Henry Fords of the world and the auto industry, that was the heart of innovation, so that’s deeply rooted in the DNA.”

Perhaps the most obvious factor that has catalyzed the city’s regrowth is the automobile industry, the piece of Detroit lore that rivals the bankruptcy in recent cultural consciousness. The city has become a prominent hub not only for car companies, but also original equipment manufacturers, suppliers, technology companies, and advanced manufacturing. As vehicles continue to be more connected to technology, the demand for highly capable tech professionals in Detroit and the surrounding communities continues to grow as well.

According to employment data company Emsi, employment in the IT industry has generally grown faster in Michigan and in the Detroit region specifically than in the nation as a whole. In addition, a 2013 report from Anderson Economic Group found more than 171,000 technology jobs in metro Detroit, as well as 9,428 students graduating that year with Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) subject degrees.

As the tech industry’s influence continues to rise, both in the region and in general, its perception has changed dramatically as well. The “next generation mobility industry” includes application development, connected cars, autonomous vehicle testing, and more. Advancements in that field include the University of Michigan’s MCity (a mock city designed for testing the potential of connected and automated vehicles), American Center for Mobility research sites in Willow Run and Ypsilanti, and General Motors’ connected vehicle research center in Flint. “Seeing competitors like Apple and Google get in the game has brought a different light on how technical the automotive industry is,” says Marcy Klevorn, CIO of Michigan mainstay Ford Motor Company. To that end, there’s a great deal of collaboration between Silicon Valley and the Midwest hub. And through it all, the state has been more than amenable to those changes. “Michigan is making sure that we stay at the forefront with regards to legislation that allows connected and autonomous vehicle testing on our roads,” Stevens notes.

Detroit’s industrial strengths extend beyond the automotive industry, particularly into the fields of IT and defense. Even through economic downturns, the city has retained a large manufacturing base, and that too is increasingly fused with tech innovation, including important ties to everything from big data analysis to the Internet of Things. “You see a lot of that supporting our big industries around here too, which would be not only automotive, but IT for farming and other kinds of industries,” says Dawn White, founder and chief technology officer of wind energy company Accio Energy. “There’s a lot of opportunity there.”

Another important factor is Michigan’s diversity, which, as with most matters in the city, has its ties to the auto industry as well. “Almost every flag in the world is represented in the automotive world, and there’s a flag somewhere in Detroit at a headquarters or North American operation,” Stevens notes. And it’s not just the international manufacturers that bring in a diverse workforce; organizations like the Chamber are dedicated to casting a wide net in finding the most talented and innovative people. “We believe that immigration is a source for talent and ingenuity,” Stevens says. “We look at veterans. We look at retraining people who may have lost skills or need new skills. We look at the disenfranchised workers or people who are coming out of incarceration or the prison system.”

A driving force of this successful, diverse community is collaboration. “The tech startup scene has contributed [toward] the concept of what I see as unique to Detroit today, and that’s the spirit of collaboration,” Karp says. “Everyone who’s here—whether they’re in real estate, tech, or any sector—there’s a feeling that we’re all in this together and all ships rise with the tide. There’s a level of collaboration that I haven’t seen in other cities.” That collaboration exists beyond the borders of Detroit proper, as young startups in the city’s heart are collaborating and working with established companies in nearby suburbs and communities. The almost continuous influx of new entrepreneurs and venture capitalists means that the most recent arrivals have plenty of mentors and examples from which to learn, as well as partners with whom to work on new projects.

In addition to the strong STEM education system, many resources and nonprofits have emerged to support professionals and growing businesses throughout Detroit. This includes coding boot camps and training programs such as Grand Circus, organizations aimed at boosting female representation in the industry like Sisters Code, and ExperienceIT, a partnership between leading tech companies, workforce agencies, and educational institutions.

Partially due to these opportunities, many of the industry’s young innovators grew up in Detroit to begin with, rather than moving to the city from elsewhere. “Southeastern Michigan produces upwards of 10,000 STEM graduates each year, which is more than Silicon Valley produces,” says Chris Pittenturf, vice president of data and analytics at Palace Sports and Entertainment, the Auburn Hills-based company behind the Detroit Pistons and other sports and entertainment ventures. “Historically, those graduates would find opportunity elsewhere, but now they are finding increasing opportunity within the city limits of Detroit.”

As young professionals stay in Detroit and the surrounding area, they see the opportunity to change the city’s culture as well as the economy. “Not only can you effectively bootstrap in Detroit, but the rise of the art and creative community within the city is an inspiring backdrop that aligns very well with how startups need to be thinking about their businesses,” says Gary Wohlfeill of CrowdRise, a Detroit-based fundraising website that helps individuals raise money for personal causes and charities. Similar to many startups in the city, CrowdRise is committed to not only supporting the tech community, but also to giving back to those in need. The organization has teamed up with Hour Detroit magazine to launch the Give Detroit Challenge, an annual fundraising event that brings together dozens of the city’s nonprofits to raise funds and link with sponsors.

“We had the classic ‘brain drain’ in the past,” Stevens notes. “The tide has reversed where young graduates are saying, ‘I want to stay here. I want to be part of this resurgence.’” As San Francisco and Silicon Valley grow more congested, other cities grow more appealing as hotbeds of tech innovation, and Detroit is positioning itself as chief among them. There’s more room, both literally and figuratively, for young entrepreneurs to grow their own businesses—and their families. “I came here with my wife and my ten-month-old twins,” says Garlin Gilchrist II, Detroit’s first deputy technology director for civic community engagement. “I wanted to build my family and build my future here in my hometown.”

Throughout all this change, both the city and the economy are growing stronger, more diverse, and more tech-friendly. “Detroit is becoming a robust ecosystem of entrepreneurial activity [again],” notes Karp. “You don’t need a Silicon Valley zip code to launch a great tech company.”

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Michigan’s Growing Startup Culture and Venture Capital Activity on the Rise

By Audrey LaForest 

All businesses had to start somewhere. For some entrepreneurs, those first ideas were last-minute light bulbs that went off in their heads and came to life on bar napkins, the backs of hands or in a dream. No matter how the idea came to fruition, it more than likely required investments for those businesses to sprout from risky ideas to established companies.

In Michigan, venture capital activity is on the rise, creating an important opportunity for investors and startups, especially in areas of automotive IT and next-generation mobility. In the third quarter of 2016, the state saw $118.8 million invested in 18 deals, ranking Michigan 17th nationally, according to an October report by the National Venture Capital Association and PitchBook, a venture capital database.

Nationally, the number of venture capital firms has decreased by 14 percent, according to the Michigan Venture Capital Association’s 2016 annual report. In Michigan, that number has grown by 257 percent over the last 15 years.

“A significant part of Michigan’s growth has been due to the amount of investment venture capitalists can attract from outside the state,” said Maureen Miller Brosnan, executive director of the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

Every dollar invested in a startup by a Michigan venture capital firm, Brosnan said, attracts an additional $4.31 of investment from outside the state.


“There’s a real possibility that startups and venture capital can be a really key industry in Michigan. It’s consistently growing right now, and it’s attracting some world-class talent,” said Ted Serbinski, managing director of Techstars Mobility, a Detroit-based startup accelerator program focused on next-generation mobility technologies.

Techstars has invested in 22 companies since it was launched here in 2015. Among its investments is ride-share startup SPLT, which relocated from New York City to Detroit last year and is providing a sustainable solution to congested weekday commutes by offering companies a way for their employees to share the ride to work; and Lunar, another startup that relocated from NYC to Detroit that is offering a new kind of smartphone with no monthly bills.

At Fontinalis Partners, a Detroit-based venture capital  firm founded in 2009, co-founder and partner Chris Thomas said Michigan’s combination of people, intelligence and history are three factors impacting the state’s steady growth in venture capital and startups.

“We have a strong venture capital community. We have a strong and growing entrepreneurial community, and we have fantastic people,” Thomas said. “We have some of the best engineers in the world. We have some of the best workers in the world, and we have this amazing opportunity to give them the chance through funding from companies like ours to go out and develop and achieve their dreams.”

Fontinalis, which is strictly focused on investing in companies that provide solutions for next-generation mobility, has funded big names like Lyft and continues to see opportunity in Detroit’s automotive and mobility ecosystems. The firm also has investments in Karamba Security, a startup that is protecting connected cars from cyberattacks.

“We have something very special to offer here because — for better or for worse — Detroit is the largest transportation technology cluster in the world … larger than Silicon Valley,” Thomas said.


As venture capital investments continue to grow, startups are becoming the state’s most promising job creators.

“Startup companies and the venture capitalists that invest in them to fuel their growth bring increased employment of highly educated workers, utilize service providers like attorneys and accountants, and lease office space to support operations,” said Tony Grover, managing director at RPM Ventures, a seed and early-stage venture firm founded in 2000 with offices in Ann Arbor and Silicon Valley.

The company has invested in startups like Automatic, a company that is connecting cars on the road to the internet via an app and plug-in car adapter that can diagnose “check engine” codes, give driving feedback and track mileage.

Startups may begin as small, high-risk endeavors, but “their goal is to build industry-defining businesses,” Grover added.

“Companies like Intel, Apple, Amazon and Facebook all started with a dream of a founder that was then backed by venture capital investment to lead an industry,” he said. “Each of these companies now employs tens of thousands of employees, providing direct and indirect economic benefits to the cities and states in which they reside.”

Audrey LaForest is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Congress Passes the Water Resources Development Act in its Final Vote of the Year

On Dec. 9, the U.S. Congress passed the Water Resources Development Act of 2016 prior to adjourning for the year. The legislation is highly supported by the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition (GLMCC), in which the Detroit Regional Chamber is a member and Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Chamber also serves as the executive director.

The bill authorizes 25 critical Army Corps projects in 17 states, Michigan being one of them, and provides critical investment in the country’s aging drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, assists poor and disadvantaged communities in meeting public health standards under the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, and promotes innovative technologies to address drought and other critical water resource needs.

The bill also responds to the drinking water crisis in Flint by providing emergency assistance to Flint and other similar communities across the country facing drinking water contamination.

The bill will now be sent to the President for signature.

Mitten State: Michigan’s World-Class Testing Facilities are Magnet for Tech Startups

By Rachelle Damico

Michigan is on the cusp of innovation for automated vehicle technologies, and startups are capitalizing on opportunity.

Testing facilities, such as University of Michigan’s Mcity, the American Center for Mobility and the recently announced GM Mobility Research Center at Kettering University, provide an opportunity to attract startups to the state.

Leading this trend is Mcity, UM’s 32-acre connected and autonomous vehicle testing facility. In February, UM’s Center for Entrepreneurship and the Mobility Transformation Center partnered on a collaboration at Mcity called TechLab, which provides transportation technology startups access to university resources.

This September, three startup companies from the West Coast joined TechLab — Civil Maps, PolySync and Zendrive.

“I think these companies are coming from the West Coast because they see a tremendous value here,” said Carrie Morton, deputy director of the Mobility Transformation Center. “Southeast Michigan and the state in general bring a lot to bear.”

Zendrive, based in San Francisco, was the first startup to join TechLab. The company uses technology aimed at improving safety for drivers by using a driver’s smartphone to measure actions such as breaking, accelerating, swerving and smartphone use. The company was established by former Google and Facebook employees, and secured $13.5 million in funding this year from venture capitalists and other firms to improve their technology and hire additional team members.

Civil Maps, based in Albany, Calif., also secured funding. The company develops 3-D maps using artificial-intelligence software to direct autonomous vehicles. In July, Civil Maps raised $6.6 million in seed funding led by five investors that include Ford Motor Co.

PolySync, based in Portland, Ore., is developing an operating system built for the high-bandwidth requirements of autonomous driving.

“These companies are finding really interesting partnerships and talent that we hope will lead them to become permanent fixtures in Southeast Michigan,” Morton said.

There has been so much interest from both startups and students that TechLab is looking to expand, Morton said, adding that UM hopes to add another three startups to the program in the near future.

“…It’s a great opportunity for the state to make sure that this technology is developed here,” Morton said.

In the coming years, the region is likely to attract other startups with the addition of the American Center for Mobility.

The 335-acre Willow Run site will become an advanced automotive testing and product development center that can test vehicles at various weather conditions, including ice and snow, at highway speeds.

“Both as an attractor and retainer of talent, I think this offers a much wider array of opportunities, particularly for our young people who are getting educated at our universities,” said Steve Arwood, CEO for the Michigan Economic Development Corp.

The state contributed $20 million to the Ypsilanti Township-based site, which is expected to open at the end of next year.

“I think this certainly is our opportunity to advance our thinking in how we situate ourselves for economic development given where this is going,” Arwood said. “We’re in a position where within two to five years we may see the rise of one or two new automakers or OEMs.”

Ann Arbor SPARK initiated the project and will play a key role in economic development tied to the Center.

“We see a great deal of potential for lots of different companies to start up and grow to scale,” said Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK’s president and CEO.

Krutko said an adjacent property on the project’s site may be used as a devoted space for early stage technology companies to collaborate with bigger players in the industry. He also said the Center has been in touch with companies from Silicon Valley that are interested in its capabilities.

“I think it will be really important not only in retaining talent, but attracting talent here, because there’s going to be great opportunities to be a part of,” Krutko said.

Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto initiative, said Michigan’s testing sites are a selling point for not just established technology companies, OEMs and suppliers, but also puts Michigan on the map among national and international companies looking to expand their prescence in the United States.

“The entire ecosystem for the development of automotive and next-generation mobility exists here in Southeast Michigan,” Stevens said.

Stevens, who sits on the American Center for Mobility’s Land Services Board, has been instrumental in helping establish the legal and financial operating parameters for the testing site.

MICHauto has also been a key voice in strengthening the state’s global leadership in mobility development for connected and autonomous vehicles through its partnership with the Michigan Mobility Initiative.

“It’s extremely critical for Michigan to use its presence in leadership and automotive as a platform for diversification into next-generation mobility because the economic opportunity for new companies, new technologies and new deployment of technologies is extremely immense,” Stevens said. “Our future depends on it.”

Rachelle Damico is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Michigan Leading the Mobility Revolution

By James Amend 

Automakers are conducting an unprecedented technology harvest, scouring the globe for the latest breakthroughs to prepare their organizations for a revolution in personal mobility.

And make no mistake, industry leaders say, the day when autonomous cars and trucks begin plying the nation’s roadways — or when people choose to borrow, share or rent a vehicle instead of owning it — is just around the corner.

“In the history of technology, we have been surprised often by the speed of which it matures and autonomous vehicles will be another example of that,” said Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co. “What I don’t want to do is leave the impression that getting there is going to be easy, because it won’t be.”

To meet this unprecedented change, the industry must break away from a century old business model. Instead of designing and engineering new technologies almost entirely in-house, automakers will have to collaborate more closely with traditional suppliers, forge partnerships outside of automotive and build entirely new units within their companies focused on future modes of transportation.

Ford has already begun real-world testing of autonomous vehicles with exercises in California, Arizona and Michigan. The company expects by the next decade it will be selling cars and trucks that operate without a steering wheel, throttle or brake pedal.

“I am very optimistic that the (Ford) target of 2021 is very achievable and we’re committed to it,” Washington added.

The real-world testing is part of Ford Smart Mobility, a plan the 113-year-old automaker expects will put it on the leading edge of autonomous vehicle technology, connectivity, mobility, customer experience, and data and analytics. The Ford plan includes strategic investments in technology companies — City Maps, Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, SAIPS and Velodyne — meant to deepen the automaker’s expertise in emerging technologies, such as computer vision, machine learning, artificial intelligence and high-resolution 3-D mapping.

Much of Ford’s work on future mobility falls under the direction of Smart Mobility CEO Rajendra “Raj” Rao. A transformation agent, Rao previously built out the digital prowess of companies such as IGATE Capital, Brunswick Corp. and 3M. Rao underscores the gravity of future mobility work at Ford by calling the opportunity to lead Smart Mobility a “culmination” of his career.

Other automakers are taking similar steps. General Motors has partnered with a pair of San Francisco-based companies, Lyft and Cruise Automation, to speed development of its ride-sharing and autonomous driving initiatives. The company also launched its own personal mobility service, Maven, in January.

FCA US LLC has leapt into autonomous research through a partnership with Google, arguably one of the world’s leading technology companies. The unlikely duo has cloaked their work in secrecy for competitive reasons, but it reportedly consists of outfitting 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans with Google’s autonomous vehicle technology.

“What develops from here, we’ll see,” FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne told journalists in Windsor recently.

Volkswagen, which is remaking its business after a damaging emissions-cheating scandal, hired Johann Jungwirth away from Apple to lead its digitization efforts as the German automaker stretches into autonomous vehicles and the mobility services of ride-hailing and car-sharing.

Jungwirth recently disclosed plans for a standalone brand at VW entirely devoted to urban mobility services.

Toyota has put its autonomous vehicle development under the auspices of Gill Pratt, a robotics genius who previously led the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency centered on driverless cars and machine learning. Pratt is CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, an Ann Arbor hub for the Japanese automaker tasked with developing artificial intelligence systems, so its cars can someday learn the intricacies of driving.

But Pratt said even an engineering giant such as Toyota must go outside its organization to achieve unquestionably safe driverless cars.

“Coopetition is actually the goal here,” he said. “Our great hope is for constructive competition and also collaboration between all the car manufacturers, the IT companies, different governments and hardware manufacturers.”

James Amend is a senior editor at WardsAuto in Southfield.

Changes ahead for auto industry provide opportunity for region

The Future Is Cloudy and Bright 

By Sandy K. Baruah 

January is always an exciting time in the Detroit region. The promise of a new year, and of course, the arrival of the North American International Auto Show, one of the premier global events on the automotive calendar and an opportunity to not only showcase the world-leading mobility assets of our region, but also the incredible and real urban renaissance of the city of Detroit.

High resolution headshot

2017, however, brings an unprecedented number of questions that could potentially impact our mobility industry.

  • Have we seen peak demand for vehicles?
  • How will the trend towards longer vehicle loan terms impact the market?
  • Will we see spiraling incentives if demand weakens?
  • Will fuel prices remain low and the demand for more pro table SUVs and CUVs continue unabated?
  • How will the Trump Administration’s pro-business, limited-regulation and potentially anti-trade policies impact the industry?
  • Will the supply chain be impacted by possible changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement?
  • And, of course, how will the continuing transformation of mobility as a product to mobility as a service – and the emergence of non-traditional players – impact our industry?

While nobody really knows for sure what the answer to these questions are, there seem to be some key principals that bode well for Michigan’s most important industry.

Michigan-based mobility companies, both at the original equipment and supplier levels, have not forgotten the hard lessons of the Great Recession. This is evident in their cautious deployment of capital and far more restrained use of debt. Break-even points have been lowered substantially and there is a far greater focus on profitability as opposed to market share. OEMs have been far from sentimental in axing unprofitable legacy nameplates and brands. Suppliers and OEMs alike have resisted major capital investments in production facilities for fear of having underutilized capacity even though they have struggled to meet historic levels of demand.

While no one saw the fuel price spike of 2007 coming, with ample yet dormant shale reserves in the United States, and a strongly pro-energy president coming into office, it seems unlikely that America will experience some kind of fuel crisis or price spike. This is good for consumers, good for the economy, and therefore, good for the automotive industry, which stand ready to meet the demand for high-riding, flexible yet fuel-efficient crossovers and utilities.

On the cautionary side, however, remains concerns over ever-lengthening loan terms. Also, the growing use of incentives is troubling several analysts. Fall 2016 vehicle sales were trending below 2015’s record levels, only to see an exceptionally strong November that was driven by a surprising growth in incentives.

But perhaps the best news of all for the immediate and long-term future is the posture of Michigan’s mobility companies regarding product. As recently as a decade ago criticism that U.S.-based companies were not always producing world-beating products was not far off the mark. But today, these companies have gone from “zero to hero” in record time. Just look at any automotive “best” list and you will see that American brands, and products produced in America, are earning more than their fair share of accolades.

Our Michigan-based companies have made this  region the most active and concentrated place for next-generation mobility research, testing and deployment. No place on the planet can compare. We have the advantage going into the future. Our friends in Silicon Valley have recognized this and have started to establish a presence in Michigan, just as our companies have done the same in the Valley.

It is certainly an exciting time in Michigan and for the industry we love. Michigan’s challenge is unique. We have to take the lead in creating world-beating products today and tomorrow, while preparing for the most revolutionary change in the industry since its creation over a century ago. Fundamental change is in the air, including a very different president. It is certainly a great time to be associated with Michigan and the automotive industry – and I am equally certain that all of us associated with the industry will indeed earn our paychecks.

Sandy K. Baruah is the president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Davenport University Introduces an Immersive Cross-Cultural Business Learning Experience


Based on Davenport University’s 20 years of international study experience, the Institute for Professional Excellence (IPEx) has designed a program exclusively for business professionals.  Participants in the International Business Experience will travel to Prague, Czech Republic to learn first-hand about business development and best practices in the Central European economy.

In today’s business environment, it is clear that cultural competence is not just a trend but an imperative skill necessary to operate in an increasingly globalized marketplace. Leaders need the ability to drive sustainable change. The International Business Experience offers a balanced mix of corporate visits, focused lectures, cultural site visits, guided tours, and networking events.

You’re Invited!

You’re invited to join us for an information session about the International Business Experience in the Czech Republic in June 2017.  Information sessions will be available in Grand Rapids, Lansing, and Livonia this January.

Learn more or RSVP for the information session today!

For more information:


Email or call Bethany DeVine, Professional Development Representative, IPEx | (616) 233-2589

North American International Auto Show Celebrates Detroit’s Innovative Technology

By Rod Alberts

We are experiencing one of the most dramatic shifts in our industry I have ever experienced in my more than 25-year history leading the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS). The disruption of new, mobility focused technologies and advent of autonomous vehicles is quickly changing the automotive landscape, and I believe we will see more change in the next 10 years than we have seen in the last 50.

Michigan holds leadership positions in talent development, auto R&D and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) testing. With 61 out of the top 100 global suppliers being headquartered in Michigan and 15 global automakers having R&D facilities or their headquarters in the state, more than 25 percent of all automotive patents are generated in Michigan. To put that into perspective, that is three times as many as any other state in the United States.

With all of this excitement and development happening right in our backyard, the NAIAS is well-positioned to showcase these companies and revolutionary technologies.

With that in mind, we are launching AutoMobili-D, a 120,000-square-foot exposition within NAIAS that will feature more than 120 companies, ranging from automakers and suppliers to tech startups. These industry-leading companies will demonstrate and debut technologies and innovations focused on future mobility and transportation platforms. Thought leaders and executives from participating companies will participate in symposiums and speaking opportunities from our atrium stage and adjoining Planet M hall during Industry Preview.

John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Self-Driving Car Project, will keynote the kickoff to AutoMobili-D on Sunday, Jan. 8. Including Krafcik’s address, NAIAS will have five dedicated days of content during Preview Week (Press Days and Industry Days), on everything from vehicle reveals and industry outlooks to the mobility ecosystem. In total, over 55 hours of thought-provoking, engaging content will be delivered from the global stage NAIAS provides.

NAIAS has a tremendous impact on our region, with an economic impact totaling $430 million. Our much-anticipated Charity Preview, started back in 1976 by a group of local Detroit auto dealers, is the largest annual single-night fundraiser in the world, with $5.2 million being raised for local children’s charities in 2016. In total, more than 815,000 people walked through the doors of the world-class Cobo Center and experienced the latest and greatest vehicles this world has to offer.

It is an honor to be part of our nation’s most prestigious and influential automotive showcase, and I encourage you all to visit us in January.

For more information on the show, please visit

Rod Alberts is the executive director of the North American International Auto Show.

Michigan schools on cutting edge of high-tech programs to meet needs of auto industry

By Dawson Bell

Employment prospects in Michigan have turned around dramatically since the depths of the Great Recession in 2008-09.

Overall job numbers have rebounded to near pre-recession levels. The state’s unemployment rate (5.4 percent) is now below the national average after a decade spent among the highest in the country (peaking in 2009 at 14.9 percent).

But one of the most striking features of Michigan’s turnaround is that it represents not so much a restoration of a lost economy, but the creation of a transformed one.

Nowhere is that transformation more remarkable than in the automotive and transportation manufacturing and service sectors — long the bedrock of the state’s economy. The home of the auto industry has become ground zero for the development of 21st century mobility technology. And with that transformation comes one of the most significant challenges the state now faces: developing a workforce with the talents needed to sustain that position of leadership.

Consider a report issued in April by the research group Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan, which identified 564,000 state workers employed in the broad category of transportation safety — from tractor-trailer drivers to engineers and planners. The size of the cohort is astonishingly robust, and the demand for new workers intense.

Yet in some areas most in search of new talent, demand far outstrips supply. In 2014, for example, employers sought to fill more than 16,500 jobs for transportation-related application and software developers, while only 1,586 potential employees had recently completed the requisite training for those jobs.

Fortunately, a broad range of educational institutions, nonprofits and businesses are moving quickly to turn the skills gap around. Among them:

Washtenaw Community College, where the Advanced Transportation Center (ATC), launched in 2015, is working with academic and industry partners to provide training and certification for students in a variety of leading transportation technologies. Those include: computer service diagnostics, lightweight materials and advanced manufacturing techniques, and the technology required for autonomous and connected vehicles.

Director Al Lecz, who spent 36 years with Ford Motor Co. working primarily as a powertrain engineer, said technology has fundamentally transformed the transportation industry. The culture has rapidly become one in which flexibility, innovation and creative problem solving are highly valued, he said.

“It is an absolutely thrilling time to be an engineer or technician,” Lecz said.

The Michigan Coalition for Advanced Manufacturing (MCAM), formed by eight community colleges (Bay, Grand Rapids, Kellogg, Lake Michigan, Lansing, Macomb, Mott and Schoolcraft), trains aspiring and displaced workers in high-demand technical fields, e.g. computer numerical control (CNC) and mechatronics (combining electronics and engineering). The program received a nearly $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor at its launch in 2013.

The formation of a partnership between Ford Motor Co. and the University of Michigan will bring Ford engineers and researchers on campus at the university’s new robotics lab. The partnership is aimed at accelerating autonomous vehicle research in collaboration with UM academics and students in a place where “machines walk, fly, drive and swim,” according to reports issued with its announcement in September.

Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety (CANVAS), within Michigan State University’s electrical and computer engineering program, is testing a range of technologies for driverless and connected cars.

Director Hayder Radha said the objective is to train a new generation of engineers in new technology that rely on sensors, radar, computer science and artificial intelligence to create a vehicle capable of independent navigation.

In the last 20 years, vehicles have evolved rapidly into highly sophisticated mobile computers, Radha said. But the impending launch of autonomous and connected vehicles has generated unprecedented interest among millennials.

“I’ve been overwhelmed with students who want to work in this area,” Radha said. “They may not even want to drive, but they want to develop and drive autonomous vehicles.”

MSU Engineering Dean Leo Kempel said Michigan has long been home to the highest per-capita concentration of engineers of any state in the country. What is changing is the rapid expansion of the field into new disciplines, like computer science, sensor technology and artificial intelligence.

“Students want to work on those things. They want to work in areas where they can make change,” Kempel said.

That ideal has also led to a boom in interest in Wayne State University’s electric-drive vehicle engineering degree program, one of the first programs of its kind in the United States aimed at reducing the nation’s dependence on imported fossil energy and lessening the environmental impact of petroleum-based vehicles through innovation.

For more than a century Michigan has been a preeminent state for engineering and technology, Kempel said, “but in 20 years, I think we may look back and say the last 20 were better than the previous 50.”

The pace of change is dizzying, but Michigan’s colleges appear to be keeping up.

Dawson Bell is a metro Detroit freelance writer.

Planet M: Orbiting Michigan’s Mobility Future

Michigan gets aggressive in mobility space 

By Tom Walsh 

In a world gone manic over myriad mobility options, can the Motor City and its home state still be the epicenter of technology and innovation in cars, trucks and other transit modes? It is a big question that is critical to Michigan’s economic future.

To address it, there is an all-out offensive taking shape to make the case that the Detroit region has the right stuff — assets, talent, policies, resolve — to maintain, and even enhance, its status as a global mobility hub.

“No place else in the U.S. has anywhere near the testing and research assets we have,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto at the Detroit Regional Chamber.

Michigan led the nation in connected vehicle projects in 2015 with 49. California came in second with 35. Along with MICHauto and Michigan’s top research universities and state agencies, Business Leaders for Michigan (BLM) launched the Michigan Mobility Initiative in 2015.

“There’s a lot more work in front of us,” said BLM president Doug Rothwell. “But I feel as good about this as I do about anything right now.”

In mid-2016, Initiative partners launched “Planet M,” a new branding campaign announced by Gov. Rick Snyder at the 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference to tout the state’s engineering talent. Its tagline: “Michigan. Where big ideas in mobility are born.”

Planet M aims to dispel not only Detroit’s old “rust belt” image, but also the perception of Michigan’s own young people and parents, from a 2014 survey by Intellitrends, that the auto industry does not offer good growth prospects.

“That’s changing,” said Tim Yerdon, auto supplier Visteon’s global director of marketing and communications, who also chairs the MICHauto talent committee. “Right now, auto tech is cool again. In 2008-09, it wasn’t. People were running away. Now they’re running back to it.”

As part of the Planet M effort, MICHauto is commissioning another perception study of young people. Another plus for the state’s image could be the recent overwhelming passage in the Michigan Legislature of bills that allow for testing of driverless vehicles on roadways.

“I’ve been contacted by three other states asking if I could send copies of our draft legislation,” said Kirk Steudle, head of the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We’re influencing the public policy debate across the country, giving an alternative to the California model, which is very overly regulated.”

However promising Michigan’s offensive on the mobility front may sound, new twists are likely looming over the horizon.

Just look back to eight years ago, amid a turbulent transition from one U.S. president to another. Michigan’s signature automotive industry was on the verge of collapse.

General Motors and Chrysler were on life support, sustained by federal cash infusions approved by outgoing President George W. Bush. Soon they would be pushed into Chapter 11 bankruptcies by President Obama. Things looked dire at the time.

What transpired instead was a surprisingly speedy revival. “Michigan-based auto companies went from zero to hero’ in record time,” noted Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah, who served under President Bush during the crisis.

While the comeback numbers were impressive, threats to the traditional auto industry business model and especially to Detroit’s place of prominence as a global hub of automotive innovation would soon be apparent. New innovators were sprouting far away from Michigan, including:

Tesla Motors produced its first low volume roadster in 2008, then showed its first prototype of an all-electric Model S in 2009. It opened a huge “gigafactory” to make lithium-ion batteries in Nevada earlier this year.

Google launched a self-driving car project in 2009 in California, later partnered quietly with Livonia-based Roush Enterprises to build prototype cars a few years later, and recently announced a partnership with FCA to develop self-driving minivans.

Uber Technologies, founded in 2009 as a ride-sharing app called UberCab, teamed up last year with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh on self-driving car research. And now San Francisco based Uber is planning a research center in metro Detroit to work with auto suppliers on autonomous car technologies.

No telling what turns may lie ahead.

In June, Detroit came up empty in the $40 million Smart City Challenge created by the Obama administration to link self-driving cars with sensors and other technologies in a city’s transportation network. Columbus, Ohio was the winner. Detroit wasn’t even among the seven finalists.

While Detroit may have valid reasons for being an “also-ran” in the Smart City Challenge, it goes to show that there are plenty of eager, aggressive cities that covet some of the leadership cachet that Detroit and Michigan have enjoyed as America’s automotive capital for so long.

Steudle put the mobility race this way: “While we’ve been moving quite aggressively in Michigan on these mobility issues, they’re moving quite aggressively in California, and in Florida and in Texas,” he said. “We really have to keep our foot on the gas.”

Tom Walsh is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press.