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Motor City Redux

By Paul A. Eisenstein

Auto’s drive for a high-tech future is accelerating Detroit’s revival

Drive down I-75 toward the welcoming beacon of General Motors’ Renaissance Center and you’ll likely spot another key GM facility, an aging factory that was known to locals, until recently, as “the Poletown plant.” These days, it goes by a new name, Factory Zero, and has a very different future in store.

In 2018, the giant automaker was set to close the facility, along with two other North American assembly plants. Today, it is the anchor of the automaker’s $27 billion investment in electrified and autonomous vehicles. When a $2.2 billion retooling program is completed this year – the largest such effort in industry history – Factory Zero will begin rolling out the all-new Hummer EV pickup. Over the next few years, it will add a Hummer SUV, as well as the Origin, a completely driverless shuttle that will be put into service by GM’s San Francisco-based autonomous vehicle subsidiary Cruise. Eventually, 2,200 will work at Factory Zero.

New Signs of Automotive Life Every Week

One can still find the detritus of an earlier automotive era if you drive around Detroit. The crumbling Packard and Fisher Body plants serve as a reminder of how the industry that helped transform a modest-sized Midwestern town into a global powerhouse also left the Motor City to struggle for survival as offices and factories fled for the suburbs. But, seemingly every week, there are new signs of life coming back to Motown.
There are certainly some traditional facilities, like Stellantis’ sprawling Mack Detroit Assembly Complex on the East side, which began producing the Jeep Cherokee in April. As many as 4,500 employees eventually will be hired in at the Mack complex and, as part of a cooperative program with Detroit at Work, many of the company’s new hires are city residents.

“Automotive is still the primary source of employment for the state and it needs to play a huge role in the economic engine behind the city’s revival,” stressed Carla Bailo, the CEO of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor. That said, “It’s different from what we had in the past,” stressed Bailo, noting that “We need a new talent pipeline like electrical engineers and software programmers.”

Ford’s Return to Detroit Roots Is Tech and Talent Driven

Ford is opening a new information center at the Factory at Corktown to facilitate engagement with the community.

Nowhere is that more obvious than in the Corktown neighborhood. Ford, the nation’s second-largest domestic automaker has had a more than century-long relationship with Detroit. Founder Henry Ford inked the deal that created the company along the riverfront and the first Model T “flivvers” rolled out of a plant on Piquette Avenue. When the Renaissance Center was sold in 1996, Ford moved most of its remaining operations to Dearborn. But it is now returning to its roots in a big way, and with a decidedly high-tech spin.

The Corktown neighborhood has become a trendy center for “foodies,” and Gen-X and Y have created a solid housing boom there. But the big transformation underway will see Ford set up a 30-acre campus. The $740-million project will involve a number of Corktown buildings – notably including the abandoned Michigan Central Depot that, for decades served as an unwanted icon of Detroit’s decline. When it reopens in 2022, the grandly restored station will serve as the headquarters for Ford’s Team Edison, and the automaker’s grand push into electrified, autonomous and connected vehicles.

A hint of what’s to come rolled out late last year in the form of the long-range, all-electric Ford Mustang Mach-E, earlier this year named North American Utility Vehicle of the Year. In May, Ford followed with the roll-out of the battery-powered F-150 Lightning pickup which generated nearly 50,000 reservations within just 48 hours of its debut.

The ongoing move to Corktown is already paying off, according to Ted Cannis, head of Ford’s commercial vehicle operations. It has clicked in ways that Ford’s older, suburban operations haven’t with the hip younger software specialists and electrical engineers that will be critical to Ford’s future, powering up the automaker’s recruitment efforts.

Automotive is still the primary source of employment for the state and it needs to play a huge role in the economic engine behind the city’s revival. That said, it’s different from what we had in the past. We need a new talent pipeline like electrical engineers and software programmers.”

Motown’s Tech Push Not Limited to Traditional

Traditional automakers aren’t the only ones finding new reason to come to the Motor City. Of the 5,000 people Ford expects will work from Corktown, it estimates fully half will be employed by suppliers like Bosch and other partners such as Detroit’s commercial real estate development company Bedrock. They’re testing autonomous parking technology using Ford Escape SUVs and Bosch electronics at a Bedrock parking garage downtown.

Other high-tech players stepping into the Detroit scene include Google and its self-driving spin-off Waymo which hopes to build some of its own autonomous vehicles in Motown.

Overall, the high-tech projects coming into Detroit, whether in Downtown, Corktown, Midtown or in other neighborhoods, offer hope that the city’s long ties to the auto industry are not just in rebound mode but are transforming to reflect the transformation of the auto industry itself.

Paul Eisenstein is publisher and editor-in-chief of automotive news site