Silicon Valley might be the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of groundbreaking technology, but there’s another major tech revolution underway some 2,300 miles east. Building on decades of experience putting the world on wheels, Michigan has been busily establishing its own reputation as a place for high-tech innovation, from engineering the next level of electric batteries to the development of driverless ride-sharing vehicles. It’s a shift that’s quickly transforming the Detroit-anchored manufacturing hub, long known for its growling muscle cars and massive luxury SUVs, into a burgeoning tech spot that’s poised to drive the future of mobility.
The area’s transformation into a hotbed for mobility ideas is being driven by an expansive partnership across the state with car companies, automotive suppliers, universities, local agencies, startups and others in the public and private sectors, which has created a research and development ecosystem unlike any other in the world.
Playboy recently had a chance to get an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at some of the collaborative efforts that are leading the charge, touring places like the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) and University of Michigan’s Mcity.
Launched in 2016, TRI aims to bridge the gap between research and product development in the mobility space, spanning from artificial intelligence to cutting-edge robotics. The Ann Arbor-based Mcity, which opened in 2015, brings together leaders from the auto sector, government and academia to work on new innovations for practically every facet of self-driving vehicle technology, from pedestrian detection systems to connected vehicles. In fact, later this year, Mcity will launch operations for what is believed to be the first fully autonomous shuttle to be used on a college campus to transport students, faculty and staff.
Michigan also just celebrated the opening of the American Center for Mobility (ACM), a state-of-the-art proving ground for connected and automated vehicle technology. The 500-acre site will provide researchers and engineers with real-world driving dynamics when testing driverless vehicles, and includes a 2.5-mile highway loop, a 700-foot curved tunnel, two double overpasses, intersections and roundabouts.
At the U-M Energy Institute Battery Lab, researchers are working on ways to develop cheaper and longer-lasting energy-storage devices that will make automobiles more efficient in the future. Even the Michigan-based pizza company Domino’s has jumped into the fray, teaming up with Ford Motor Co. to conduct a pilot project in Michigan, where pizza deliveries were made with an autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid, and customers were able to use GPS technology to follow their delivery vehicle with an upgraded version of Domino’s Tracker system. Ford is now revving up to apply the lessons learned in the Michigan pilot project to launch its first self-driving vehicle business in Miami and Miami Beach, in a partnership with Domino’s and the food delivery service Postmates.
Trevor Pawl, Group VP of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), an organization helping to connect the dots in the state’s mobility strategy, says it only makes sense for Michigan to take a leading role in the space.
“Seventy-six percent of the American auto industry’s research and development happens in the state of Michigan. Ninety-six percent of the top 100 automotive suppliers in North America have a presence in Michigan. And Michigan has the greatest concentration of original equipment manufacturers in the world,” notes Pawl, who also serves as VP of PlanetM, an arm of MEDC that focuses solely on mobility issues. “If a new vehicle technology is going to be produced for the masses, that technology will likely run through an executive, designer, buyer or engineer in Michigan.”
According to PlanetM, Michigan has led the nation in mobility-related patents over the past five years, and is home to 49 connected and automated vehicle projects—more than any other state. The North American International Show, held in early January in Detroit, devoted an entire area to showcasing some of the strides the city is making in the tech-driven mobility space.
Playboy had a chance to get a more hands-on take on some of that progress, when given the opportunity to test drive the 238-mile-range Chevrolet Bolt EV in Los Angeles, a city in which one gets a true sense of the dire need for smarter mobility. All of the engineering, battery development and vehicle integration for the electric Chevy hatch, which was first introduced at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), was done in Michigan. The surprisingly peppy Bolt EV, which starts at around $36,000, is now widely considered to be the go-to example on how to successfully pull off a “true” electric vehicle for the masses, a mark that even the Northern California-based Tesla has struggled with, despite its popularity as a brand.
Still, the idea, Pawl tells Playboy, is not for Michigan to compete with Silicon Valley, but rather to build a more cohesive partnership with California. “Both regions need one another,” he says. “California can leverage Michigan’s production expertise, and Michigan can benefit from Silicon Valley’s software prowess and startup ecosystem.”
For Detroit, the state’s shift into the area of mobility has become a pivotal part of the city’s local development strategy, as a means of solving transportation issues for Detroit’s nearly 700,000 residents, and luring more businesses and people to the city.
“Getting from A to B is one of the basic functions of life. And as we grow as a city, both for people that have been here for 50 years as well as potential new residents, both have that same need of getting where they need to go and doing it in a way that’s safe, fast and affordable. And that’s what we are striving to do,” says Mark de la Vergne, the City of Detroit’s chief of mobility innovation. “We need to continue to make investments in transit and make it easier for people to do it. We want this to be able to provide the mobility that allows people to get where they need to be, whether that’s their job, whether that’s a doctor’s appointment, whether that’s their school. It’s important part of life.”
The city’s partnerships with groups like Techstars, a global mentoring and funding network that has an automotive mobility arm in Detroit, are more specifically focused on fostering the other side of that development strategy, namely attracting new startups to the city.
To date, Techstars has bought in a group of more than 30 diverse companies from around the world that are focused on developing new automotive mobility technologies. “A handful came from Michigan. It’s almost all external, companies that actually wanted to come to Detroit,” says Ted Serbinski, managing director of Techstars mobility. “Startups know that if you want to be in automotive, you have to come here.”
Detroit’s positioning in Michigan’s growth as a major mobility development hub is also being fueled by longer-standing businesses such as the Lear Corporation, an automotive supplier that develops high-tech seating systems, which opened a satellite innovation center in the city’s downtown area in 2016.
Stephen Rober, VP of engineering at Lear, says the downtown location gives the company prime access to one of the most critical resources needed when it comes to automotive innovations. “This lets us tap more directly into the city’s infrastructure, the schools that are here, the local universities,” Rober tells Playboy. “It gives us more direct access…to that raw talent.”
Looking to make a more direct connection in its mobility strategy, Ford, which is headquartered on the outskirts of the city, is also gearing up to open a new office in downtown Detroit focused on autonomous and electric vehicles that will house more than 200 employees. The popular ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have been pushing to make a bigger play in Detroit as well. In addition, the University of Michigan startup May Mobility has been using Downtown Detroit as a major hub for testing its new driverless shuttles as part of its future growth strategy.
Of course, the city long known as the “car capital” of the world is nowhere close to abandoning its core tradition of crafting cool cars out of hunks of sheet metal, which has shaped the area for more than 100 years. But it’s clear that the region is more focused on redefining itself for the future of transportation, rather than reveling in its legacy.
“We fully design, integrate, engineer and build some of the most world-class vehicles. But mobility is changing and it has to,” says Glenn Stevens, executive director of the Detroit Regional Chamber MICHauto and vice president of the chamber’s Automotive & Mobility Initiatives. “These forces that are hitting us—where people are moving to cities, scarcity of resources…and everything in between—means that we need to use our base platform of innovation in automotive to transform our industry here in Michigan and Detroit to the way the world is consuming mobility.”