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.