Spend time in an American city on the cutting edge of autonomous vehicle research, and you might stumble upon certain cutting-edge devices in action. You could spot a driverless shuttle developed by startup May Mobility doing test runs to and from parking structures. Perhaps you’ll come across some of the real-world tests of autonomous vehicle safety innovations engineered by Derq.
“You hear that, and you think they must be doing it in Palo Alto, but no,” said Paul Krutko, president and CEO of economic development organization Ann Arbor SPARK. “They’re doing that in Detroit.”
People may assume Silicon Valley is where all the paradigm-shifting tech innovations are happening these days, but Southeast Michigan is quietly maintaining its position as the capital of the automotive world, even as the industry moves into the high-tech future. According to the Detroit Regional Chamber, Michigan leads the nation in the number of connected and automated vehicle projects.
“The strong number of automotive end-customers, and the state’s excess of industrial and mechanical engineering expertise, makes us different than Silicon Valley,” said Seun Phillips, director of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM initiative. “That said, we don’t view Silicon Valley as a competitor. We view their government leaders and companies as partners.”
Michigan’s prominence in the autonomous vehicle space is no accident. Here’s why the birthplace of the auto industry is also home to the future of mobility.
The Motor City is still the Motor City
Big ideas can happen anywhere, but when those ideas have to do with vehicles, they eventually make their way to Michigan. That’s why the Boulder, Colorado-based startup accelerator Techstars launched its Techstars Mobility program in Detroit in 2015.
“Detroit was the perfect place to start a mobility vertical program,” said Lisa Seymour, program director for Techstars Mobility. “If you have a mobility startup, chances are you’re going to have to come through Southeast Michigan at some point — there are so many resources, and there’s so much expertise here. That really helps accelerate our companies that go through the program.”
It’s not just that the big automakers are in Detroit, either. Michigan is home to 16 original equipment manufacturers’ headquarters or technology centers, along with 60 of the top 100 automotive suppliers. The state exported $26.3 billion in transportation equipment in 2016. And 76 percent of its business-funded research and development is in the auto sector. According to Krutko, there are 187 mobility companies within a 5-mile radius of Ann Arbor alone. That’s what being the global leader of the auto industry for more than a century will do to a place.
An abundance of testing sites and mobility infrastructure
Today, Southeast Michigan’s long-established auto industry infrastructure is supplemented by high-tech infrastructure investments. In 2013, Michigan became one of the first states in the nation to pass legislation for driverless vehicles. The University of Michigan has established Mcity, a unique urban mobility test facility, and M-Air, a drone testing lab. The Michigan Department of Transportation is aiming to complete more than 350 miles of connected freeway infrastructure by 2019. And most recently, the 500-acre American Center for Mobility (ACM) opened just 10 miles from the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.
“We are positioning the American Center for Mobility to be the premier test facility for automated vehicles, so we can offer real -world environments for safe and repeatable testing,” explained Soraya Kim, chief innovation officer for ACM. The facility will include a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses and more. But the ACM’s goals go beyond physical testing. Its vision includes working with global organizations to set industry standards, as well as partnering with educational institutions to develop the mobility workforce of the future.
The talent is (and will be) in Michigan
The ACM’s workforce development efforts get a boost from the talent already in Michigan. The state has the greatest number of mechanical and industrial engineers in the country — and its universities graduate 6,600 more engineers every year. The ACM aims to continue to grow those numbers by working with students to spark their interest in STEM careers at an early age.
The organization is also working with a 15-member academic consortium to develop a curriculum that will prepare the next generation of mobility industry workers, whether they’re fresh out of high school, looking to change jobs or are even still in elementary school.
“For the U.S. to remain competitive, we need to start very young,” said John Maddox, president and CEO of ACM. “We need to create significant STEM programs based on this technology.”
Southeast Michigan is an automotive research alley
Mobility innovation isn’t purely a function of private industry. In fact, the research that happens in Michigan’s public institutions is key to moving the technology forward.
“Seventy-six percent of all North American automotive ability research happens in Southeast Michigan,” Krutko noted. “And the University of Michigan is the leading university in that research, bar none.”
In addition to launching Mcity and M-Air, the University of Michigan has begun construction on the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building — a $75 million, four-story, 140,000-square-foot robotics facility slated to open in 2019 — where a broad spectrum of mobility research will take place.
It’s a mobility collaboration hub
Call it Midwestern congeniality or just good business sense, but one of Michigan’s strongest assets in the development of mobility technology is its existing base of auto industry, public officials, workers and academia eagerly working toward the same goals.
Even private sector competitors are working together. At ACM, auto companies are collaborating on safety for automated and connected vehicles. “These companies are competing very intensely, but they all agree the vehicles have to be safe,” Maddox said. “This collaboration will establish best practices that everybody could turn to.”
Organizing entities like the State of Michigan’s PlanetM initiative bring together government officials, industry, academia and the workforce to get everyone moving toward a common goal: Michigan’s future as the mobility capital of the world. It took the enthusiasm and engagement of every one of those sectors to move the ACM from its groundbreaking in 2016 to its grand opening this year.
With sustainability, safety and accessibility at the forefront of global concerns, Michigan is in a unique position to drive the future of mobility tech. “Where else do you get this kind of energy and synergy in one location?” Kim asked. Outside of Michigan? Probably nowhere.
A former downtown development professional, Natalie Burg is a freelancer who writes about growth, entrepreneurialism and innovation.