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Our Editorial: Keep new auto tech in Michigan

From: The Detroit News

By The Detroit News Editorial Staff

January 12, 2016

The North American International Auto Show is in full swing, and walking around Cobo Center feels like being transported to another planet. As the cars of the future become the cars of today, Michigan must be aggressive about keeping the high-tech jobs that are defining the auto industry here.

This year’s Detroit auto show showcases a wide variety of vehicles that are almost more computer than car. While Silicon Valley is driving part of this new development, Detroit’s Big Three, as well as the foreign automakers and suppliers with research operations here, should capture these new technology-centered jobs and keep them in Michigan.

Auto manufacturing is very different than it was several decades ago, and the high-tech, innovative aspects of the industry are encouraging more young people to consider automotive careers.

Glenn Stevens, vice president of MICHAuto, an arm of the Detroit Regional Chamber, says the chamber did a study two years ago that looked at perceptions of the auto industry and how eager Michigan youth were to pursue jobs in manufacturing and autos. It turns out those perceptions weren’t rosy.

“We are making progress,” Stevens says. “We’ve known for a long time we need to raise awareness that this is a high tech global industry that has opportunity.”

As the Detroit Chamber is pushing during the auto show, Michigan is synonymous with autos. And Stevens says the state maintains the greatest concentration of automotive expertise in the country.

“I think we do have the talent,” he says.

Companies like Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. are moving toward ride-sharing and autonomous technology and are poised to be at the forefront of these shifts in the industry.

That’s important, because the auto industry is global and Detroit shouldn’t be left behind.

Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis at AutoPacific, says auto companies all have satellite offices now in Silicon Valley.

“They want to have an ear to the ground and see what’s going on at the grassroots level,” says Sullivan, who is based in Ann Arbor.

Sullivan says automakers can’t ignore what’s going on in California, but that Michigan’s longstanding stature in the industry will pay off.

“A lot of innovation comes from the supply base,” he says. “That’s something that is unique to here.”

Sullivan also suggests auto companies should work together on developing new technology, as many of these elements will become future commodities.

Along those lines, the state, its universities and auto companies should collaborate to place Michigan in a strong position going forward. Just like Western Michigan University has a research campus where a variety of engineering and tech companies set up shop, other schools could develop similar concepts — exposing students to various careers in the auto world and helping them land related jobs after graduation.

The University of Michigan offers another good example of thinking ahead. Its M-City autonomous vehicle test course is helping Michigan become a leader in driverless-car technology. Other universities should jump on board.

“We have to have some sort of a long-term vision,” Sullivan says.

The future has arrived. And Detroit should seek to own it.