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.

Tom Walsh: New bridge is an opportunity region can’t waste

By Tom Walsh

From the Detroit Free Press

April 14, 2013

Now that President Barack Obama and the U.S. State Department have officially chosen to accept Canada’s gift of a free bridge at the Detroit-Windsor border crossing by issuing a permit for the project, Michigan’s obligation is to put it to good use.

That’s not a given in a state that has squandered or underutilized assets in the past. More on that later.

First, we can celebrate the green light given to the New International Trade Crossing (NITC) for what it is — a symbol of a region looking forward, investing in growth.

“For those of us who are in the economic development business, it gives us something to sell. We now will have a visible symbol and an actual tool to make it a lot easier to attract companies that are involved in international trade,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

David Egner, head of the New Economy Initiative for Southeastern Michigan, said research has shown that Michigan could create a series of logistics hubs that would yield 66,000 new jobs — partly by capturing business that now flows through congested Chicago — but only if a new border crossing provides capacity to handle more traffic.

“It could change the game, including for the west side of the state,” Egner said. “This is a perfect east-west partnership, because today if manufacturers on the west side ship through Chicago, it sits for three days before it moves.”

While border crossing data show that Ambassador Bridge traffic has not fully recovered from the slump after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the NITC project suggests a brighter future, a region on the move.

“The past trajectory of the bridge traffic has mirrored the trajectory of the Big Three automakers,” Baruah said. “As we see their sales start to spike, their challenge is that if the capacity of the bridge between the U.S. and Canada is constrained, then where are they going to add future capacity to build their cars, now that their trajectory is higher?”

The near-term stimulus of construction jobs is important, too. “This bridge is going to take years to build and will probably have, at various times, tens of thousands of people working on it,” Baruah said. “Even though those are short-term jobs, they feed a narrative of good things happening in Michigan.”

When I asked Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday whether Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel (Matty) Moroun might now be ready to drop efforts to block the NITC project, Snyder said he hasn’t seen any such signals yet, but he is open to discussion on how the public and private bridges could coexist.

“You hope at some point that people recognize this project’s going to move forward because it’s for the benefit of Michiganders,” Snyder said. “I’m always open, and I hope the Canadians are open to sitting down to talk. This is one of those milestones that hopefully reinforces the fact that this project should happen and will happen.”

Whatever tack Moroun takes with the existing bridge, it’s crucial that Michigan’s business and civic leaders hunker down seriously to maximize the benefits of the NITC by laying the groundwork for new industries and for expanding existing businesses.

A classic example of failing to capitalize on a major asset has been the region’s lackluster effort to take advantage of the outstanding McNamara Terminal and other upgrades at Detroit Metro Airport.

It has been 11 years now since the 122-gate, $1.2-billion McNamara Terminal opened, winning raves from travelers and the news media alike. But once visitors leave Metro Airport’s baggage claim area, they are peeved to discover they must fork over $70 for a ride to a downtown Detroit business hotel, or nearly $90 to get to Birmingham.

How can a region that’s serious about business and growth put up with the lack of even a mediocre system of shuttles to get people from the airport to major lodging and conference spots in the region? Thankfully, the Metro Detroit Convention & Visitors Bureau is working on a proposal to improve airport transit. Let’s hope they come up with something workable — and soon.

Meanwhile, we should look at the new bridge the same way we look at the airport: It’s a tremendous potential asset, but it must leveraged.

Just as there’s been much talk about the growth potential of an Aerotropolis development area between Metro and Willow Run airports, there has also been much talk of maximizing the busy border crossing to attract more logistics and freight business.

“There are bunches of plans on paper, but nothing that’s been done in an aggregated manner that makes sense and that the state has embraced,” Egner said.

By the time shovels are in the ground for NITC construction, let’s hope there’s movement on how best to take advantage of it.

Contact Tom Walsh: 313-223-4430 or twalsh@freepress.com