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Gov. Rick Snyder unveils Michigan branding campaign called Planet M

Detroit Free Press

By John Gallagher 

June 2, 2016

Gov. Rick Snyder announced a new branding campaign Wednesday — dubbed Planet M — to promote Michigan as the world’s center for innovative transportation and mobility research of the future.

Like the Pure Michigan campaign, this new Planet M effort is meant to capture something essential about the state’s strengths — its superlative roster of engineering talent, its history of automotive innovation, its manufacturing capacity, even its four-season environment that allows testing of new vehicle technology in realistic weather conditions.

The campaign’s tagline is “Michigan. Where big ideas in mobility are born.”

“Planet M represents Michigan’s future as a leader in mobility and the innovations that will continue to attract investment in our state,” Snyder said. “Michigan has always been the automotive industry leader, and as the transportation industry evolves, our state’s influence will continue to shape the way the world moves.”

Announced at the annual Mackinac Policy Conference, the Planet M effort represents a positive and uncontroversial goal for a state beset with contentious issues, ranging from the Flint water tragedy to the financial woes of the Detroit Public Schools district.

“When I’m in Washington, I always remind people that Michigan is not just smokestacks and manufacturing. It is a high-tech state and a leader in new automotive technology,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich. “The launch of the Planet M brand will show America and the rest of the world that Michigan is the leader in 21st-Century transportation.”

The Planet M announcement created just one of the transportation-related talking points on the first day of the Detroit Regional Chamber’s conference.  Business and civic leaders also lined up to support the metro Detroit Regional Transit Authority’s plan announced Tuesday to fund and build a public transit network in metro Detroit.

Those leaders offered a series of arguments in favor of the RTA plan, from economic justice for poor people who need transit options to more broadly defined economic development. “This is a no-brainer,” said Chris Kolb, president of the Michigan Environmental Council, at a news conference. Matt Cullen, president of CEO of Rock Ventures, echoed that. “Connectivity is a competitive advantage,” he said.

But Paul Hillegonds, chairman of the RTA board, acknowledged at the news event that leaders have a big job ahead to persuade voters to back a higher millage on property taxes to support the plan.

Voters in the four-county RTA region — Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Wayne — are expected to vote in November on a 1.2-mill, 20-year property tax millage to fund new bus rapid-transit lines, express service to Detroit Metro Airport and commuter rail and improvements to local bus, paratransit and other mobility options.

“We’ve had 23 failed attempts over the past four decades at getting public transit,” Hillegonds said at the news conference. “But remember this: We had never reached the point where we had the board working together, prepared to support a master plan and prepared to put to the voters the means of funding that master plan. This is a different time. We have the right team. We have the right plan. We have the support. Now let’s make history and get it done.”

The Planet M marketing campaign comes at a time when the drive toward autonomous vehicles — vehicles in which computers take over most or all of the duties of a human operator — has been accelerating beyond any predictions of a few years ago.

Dan Ammann, president of General Motors, said Wednesday that making Michigan preeminent in future mobility leadership requires a supportive state regulatory environment. He said GM supports a series of bills introduced recently by state Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, that would protect automakers testing and operating autonomous vehicles on state roads.

“We think it’s important that Michigan be right at the front of the line on this activity,” he said, adding that the bills being proposed  “can certainly help with that. We’d like to see them pass, and nothing would make us more pleased as a company to have the state alongside us.”

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, predicted Tuesday that autonomous vehicles would be operating in controlled environments within two years and would be in general use in no more than about five years — a more aggressive schedule than others have predicted.

Peters emphasized the importance of the planned American Center for Mobility, a 335-acre site at the former Willow Run location that will offer advanced testing resources for the industry, including higher speeds and interaction with rail. Peters is seeking federal designation of the site as the nation’s official hub of autonomous vehicle technology.

The planned center at Willow Run would allow even more extensive and realistic testing of autonomous technology than Mcity, a 32-acre site that opened in 2015 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor that simulates urban and suburban environments.

GM’s Ammann endorsed the plans for the Willow Run facility, up to a point.

“I think for Michigan, it certainly is important. It’s another opportunity for the state to demonstrate leadership in this area,” he said. But, he added, “We believe that a lot of the testing for autonomous vehicle technology needs to happen on the roads in the real world, and we’re quite focused on that.” He cited testing GM is doing in San Francisco.

The Planet M effort is an informal consortium of partners to advance Michigan’s image as a center for mobility research. It includes the Michigan Economic Development Corp., MDOT, Business Leaders for Michigan, MichAuto and the University Research Corridor.

“Michigan is strengthening its position as the hub for the next generation of transportation, and Planet M will elevate those strengths to a national and international audience,” said Steve Arwood, director of the state’s Talent and Economic Development Department.

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