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Panel: Michigan can be national mobility R&D leader by tapping auto history, breaking down silos

Crain’s Detroit Business

By Lindsay Vanhulle 

June 1, 2016

For Michigan to be a national leader in the development of self-driving cars, industry executives say, the state needs to both leverage its auto history and break down its silos.

A panel of industry leaders told attendees at the Detroit Regional Chamber Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday that Michigan needs to adopt a “connect-the-dots” strategy that can foster collaboration between technology startups and mature automakers.

“We’re sitting on top of the biggest cluster of automotive talent in the world. Most countries — in fact, I would argue no country — has the amount of automotive talent that we have in the tricounty area (in Southeast Michigan),” said Matt Simoncini, president and CEO of Southfield-based Lear Corp., who participated in a panel discussion about the convergence of the automotive and technology industries.

“We need to connect the dots.”

The future of mobility is a hot topic among policymakers at this year’s conference. Also Wednesday, Gov. Rick Snyder introduced a new branding campaign, Planet M, aimed at marketing Michigan as the American mobility center.

General Motors Co. President Dan Ammann told reporters the Detroit carmaker supports legislation recently introduced in the state Senate that would allow autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads for any reason, not only during testing. The package of bills also paves the way for creation of the American Center for Mobility at GM’s former Willow Run facility in Ypsilanti Township.

GM this year purchased San Francisco-based Cruise Automation, which develops autonomous vehicle technology, and has invested in ride-share service Lyft.

Ammann said that while Willow Run will provide the state an advantage when it comes to testing, GM’s preference is to test its driverless cars on actual roads — something the bill package sponsored by Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake Township, would allow.

“There is a lot of work going on in parallel at different levels,” including state and federal governments, Ammann said. “There’s an opportunity to take some of the best thinking (to a national level). Michigan has a chance to be a leader at that.”

That kind of collaboration will be required, not only among government agencies, said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who participated in the panel discussion. Vehicles and infrastructure need to communicate, Peters said, as do automakers that historically have developed their own test tracks. They now could benefit from sharing use of Mcity, a 32-acre test site at the University of Michigan, Peters said.

The federal government also likely will work with states to fund sensors that would be installed on transportation infrastructure to communicate with connected vehicles, Peters told reporters Wednesday during a news conference to announce the Planet M campaign.

Ford Motor Co.‘s decision to open a research facility in Silicon Valley inspired plans to redesign the automaker’s Dearborn headquarters campus over the next decade, said Ken Washington, the company’s vice president of research and advanced engineering and a panelist.

Washington attributed the headquarters project to “getting out of the automotive silo.”

Doing that, though, will be one of the industry’s challenges, said Ted Serbinski, managing director of the Techstars Mobility startup accelerator and a panelist. Automakers are located miles from one another, he added, the result of an entrenched auto culture that is protective of research and development.

In Silicon Valley, Serbinski said, the tech startup culture breeds “cross-pollination.”

“We have the talent, we have all the engineering, we have the capacity,” he said. “What we don’t have is all this connected tissue connecting the dots.”

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