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Conventional wisdom on the battle between Detroit and Silicon Valley may have it wrong

Daniel Howes
Detroit News

With apologies to Mark Twain, rumors that Detroit’s clunky ol’ auto industry can’t compete for talent and can’t compete with Silicon Valley may be greatly exaggerated.

A set of surveys by the Detroit Regional Chamber’s MICHauto unit, out this week, shows an auto industry regaining favor with would-be employees and the people who influence them. It shows a 14-point gain when asked whether young people would consider a career in the auto space.

It shows that more folks describe the industry as innovative than “dead and declining” – a dismayingly popular phrase just three short years ago. It shows that more young people and those who influence them believe the auto industry offers opportunity and advancement in manufacturing and skilled trades, especially with advanced degrees.

What’s changed?

Two things: a record of profitability, bolstered by hard decisions this town’s automakers simply wouldn’t make in the good times of the past. And the undeniable techification of the auto industry.

Think Google and Apple angling to compete for leadership in self-driving car technology. Think Intel spending more than $15 billion dollars to buy its way into autonomous driving. Think Tesla trying to set the course for electric vehicles that promise to drive themselves, only to find that lowly General Motors is favored to get there first.

Think cool.

Want to know why perceptions of the century-old auto industry, the source of so much economic misery in the heartland, are enjoying a bit of a renaissance?

Because the bright line separating cars from Silicon Valley blurs more with each passing month. Because the digitalization of so much of our economy is making automotive engineering and manufacturing a tech-driven enterprise. Because it demands a whole new kind of young talent to develop and integrate the technology – one reason Ford Motor is renovating blocks of West Dearborn to make it more inviting to millennials.

I know, I know.

Right about now, old timers are groaning. They’ll say the biggest source of Michigan’s economic malaise is its reliance on the cyclical auto industry. On jobs that promised retirement benefits the rest of the country could only dream about. On a worldview unsupported by the real world.

But evidence suggests today’s auto industry, much less tomorrow’s, isn’t that industry. It’s more financially disciplined, more willing to make hard decisions in good times, and humble enough to buy the expertise it needs instead of assuming it knows everything.

It doesn’t. And that’s good, not bad.

A few years back, the head of the state Transportation Department offered a piece of advice: Once something is technically feasible, you can’t stop it. Artificial intelligence, enabled by computing and big data, is on a path to fundamentally reshape the future of the past automotive century.

The mega-trends behind the deep techification of cars, trucks and transportation are not passing political and social moments. They’re a watershed, signaling the most revolutionary change since Henry Ford rolled the first Model Ts off the moving assembly line.

And folks are starting to realize Detroit is right in the center of it.

Daniel Howes is a columnist at The Detroit News. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. A former European correspondent for The News, he has reported from nearly 25 countries on three continents and in the Middle East. Before heading to Europe in 1999, Howes was senior automotive writer and a business projects writer. He is a frequent contributor to NewsTalk 760-WJR in Detroit and a weekly contributor to Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor.
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