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Detroit auto industry so recently given up for dead is very much alive

Dec 17, 2016

Very cold Detroit is hot again.

Look at what the people whose business is to place bets on the next new thing are doing. They’re coming to Detroit, and doing it with a regularity and purpose that are changing the narrative of the city and Michigan.

Walt Disney will use the North American International Auto Show next month to unveil the latest creation from its Pixar Animation studios — a life-size version of one of the stars in its animated “Cars 3” movie. Hollywood comes to Detroit in January? Yep.

More than 50 startup companies — all but two of them from outside Michigan — plan to pitch at the show’s first-ever AutoMobili-D expo to be arrayed outside the traditional auto show of metal and rubber. And venture-capital firms whose principals long ignored Michigan are working its auto space for promising investments.

What is this place becoming, anyway? A tech hub? Maybe, because technology and capital are mobile, too. And Detroit is what one investor describes as, quote, “the largest transportation technology cluster in the world.”

Judging by the action of people outside the Michigan bubble, they’re noticing the opportunity … and they’re moving. Doesn’t matter if the cynics predisposed to always assuming the worst about Detroit, and saying so publicly, don’t get it. They’re not part of the solution.

The latest edition of the information technology magazine Sync carries a headline tailor-made for next month’s auto show: “Innovation Never Left Detroit,” it says. Inside, the lead headline reads, “Detroit: America’s Tech Hub Since 1903.” Not exactly the stuff of hometown self-flagellation so depressingly common when the city and the state were on their proverbial knees.

That was then. Now there’s an ecosystem of well-capitalized hometown automakers, suppliers, software developers and other tech giants who are combining to revolutionize the auto industry this town has known for more than a century.

This is not your father’s auto industry. It’s a maker of technology platforms that resemble the cars and trucks of old. Their brains are powered by enormous amounts of computer code and related technology connecting steering and brakes, engines and infotainment, cameras and sensors that propose to work together and to drive itself.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra stole the auto show limelight this week when she announced plans to build driverless cars in its Orion Township plant and test them on Michigan roads under the state’s new autonomous-vehicle law.

Nothing says reality more clearly in this business than driverless cars rolling off a union-represented assembly line that otherwise builds subcompacts. And few things say “New Detroit” more credibly than a company taking such calculated risks even as it makes tons of money selling its traditional lineup of cars and trucks.

GM is using the city that put the world on wheels with the moving assembly line … that built the middle class … that forged post-war prosperity before nearly losing it all … to make an unambiguous statement: becoming the hub for next-generation mobility means doing it.

If you’re looking for the definition of running on all cylinders, that’d be one.

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.