How autonomous driving tech has revived the Detroit motor industry
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When Jessica Robinson moved to Detroit from San Francisco five years ago, she sold her car. “It was a huge quality of life choice. I walk to work, I bicycle, I have a Vespa that I ride around. I was able to buy my first home here, which I never would have been able to do in the Bay Area,” she says.
Robinson’s organisation, the Detroit Mobility Lab, aims to tempt tech talent towards Michigan. Its base is in a downtown WeWork, a trendy office with the Silicon Valley company’s trademark glass booths and shared working spaces. Here, taxi app Lyft has an outpost, as does Bosch, as well as many smaller start-ups.
Once synonymous with decline, poverty and crime, Detroit is now home to hipster hotels, a buzzy restaurant scene and a slew of start-ups working on self-driving cars, air taxis and the tech that powers them. Electric scooters dot the pavements and it has a shared bicycle scheme, shiny new buses and a freshly launched mobile app for public transport.
Ford, the company that 100 years ago made Detroit the centre of the automotive world, is once again overhauling the Motor City. Last year it received a $209m (£172m) tax break to buy and redevelop vast swathes of property including the abandoned Michigan Central Station, which last saw an Amtrak train in 1988.
The city declared bankruptcy in 2013, brought low by mismanagement, overstaffed public services, a huge public-sector pensions bill, endemic borrowing, population decline and falling tax revenues.
Its debts mounted to $18bn, its murder rate was the highest in the US and its population had plummeted from more than a million in 1990 to less than 700,000 in 2013. During the spring of 2009, at the height of the financial crisis, General Motors and Chrysler, two of the city’s biggest employers, both declared bankruptcy.
Now, near Ford’s 1.2m square foot site in Corktown, the millennials are moving in. Along the main road, wine bars and noodle restaurants sit beside garages and warehouses.
Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, admits that the city can be a hard sell for workers from New York, California and Seattle who are familiar with the old stories about Detroit. “On the phone, it’s more challenging than bringing them here. So we try, we spend time on the phone to get people to come to visit, just come and see it for yourself.”
Around half of his staff working on the new autonomous vehicles are new to the industry, with less than a year working for the company, and half are veterans. Middle-class families have historically elected to live in Detroit’s suburbs rather than in the city proper. The newbies are changing that, he says. “People that are coming from out of town, who don’t have a place, a lot of them choose to live in the city. Many of them choose not to have a car,” he says.
Downtown, near the Detroit River, a pedestrianised square has been reclaimed from cars and is full of local workers on their lunch break. Across the street, an expensive health food shop opened just six weeks earlier.
But Detroit is huge, around 140 square miles, and outside the centre, signs of its troubled past are apparent. Boarded-up houses and empty plots still dot residential streets, interspersed with beautiful clapboard homes painted in bright colours.
Both GM and Ford have let thousands go from their factories. Though some employees were offered work at another plant, which may be elsewhere in the country, many jobs have been moved to China or Mexico.
Into the fray comes Silicon Valley company Waymo, a Google spin-off widely considered to be the most advanced on the path of creating a viable self-driving car. Patrick Cadariu, its head of vehicle supply chain operations, says 400 jobs will be created in its new factory, which Waymo will use to kit out electric Jaguar cars with its self-driving tech.
There’s no doubt that setting up shop in Detroit, the car-loving heart of a car-loving country, is also a good PR decision. A Detroit native, he discovered after the factory location was announced that his great-grandfather worked in the same building, back in 1926.
“He was attracted to being here at that point in time because of the opportunities that this innovation created, and I’m back here after being gone for a long time, for similar reasons,” he says. “It’s not about transferring or shuffling people around. It’s about creating new jobs and creating opportunities here, and having Detroiters and people from Michigan with the first shot at that.”
Self-driving car companies want data, and Detroit is also a haven because of the wide variety of streets - and behaviours - that are found here. On a ride downtown in one of Ford’s cars fitted out with a self-driving system developed by its Pittsburgh-based partner, start-up Argo AI, we encounter roundabouts, one-way streets, illegally parked cars and pedestrians wandering into the middle of the road without the right of way.
The only company actually putting the public in its cars here is local firm May Mobility, which takes the staff of property management firm Bedrock on a short 800m route around part of the downtown area in its six-seat electric shuttle. The company also runs shuttles in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Columbus in Ohio and Providence, Rhode Island.
This Detroit service is “probably one of the last routes that will become safety driver free, because it’s at the very upper end of the difficulty spectrum. Just a hellish route,” says chief executive Edwin Olson.“But other routes we can imagine doing without a safety driver in the next 12 to 18 months.”
Despite the engineering history of the area, there’s still a serious skills deficit. One problem is that for young people, traditional automotive has lost its sheen, says Robinson.
“They’ve seen parents, grandparents go through some sort of boom and bust a couple [of] times, at least. So as they think about their own careers, they’re like, well, maybe I’ll pick something a little bit more stable.”Half an hour’s drive from the city, Washtenaw Community College, a sprawling campus with 20,000 students, is trying to change that. In 2015 it received a $4.8m grant from the state of Michigan, which it used to overhaul its classes based on what local businesses said they needed.
Students, many of whom are already working in the industry (the average age in this department is 27), learn in rooms full of state-of-the-art equipment, including 3D printers and robotic laser cutters and welders, which are laid out in the same way as real factories. They also study cybersecurity and software programming, as well as how to fix sensors and connected car systems.
It’s because of these skills companies like Humanising Autonomy are coming to Detroit. The British start-up, which analyses behaviour to help drivers, and eventually autonomous vehicles, predict what pedestrians will do, is opening an office in the city.
“San Francisco is great for innovation labs and new technologies. But if you actually want to integrate your technology into a commercial or production-type product for automotive, Detroit is really the place to be,” says co-founder Leslie Nooteboom. The company is a graduate of local mobility-focused accelerator, TechStars, which offers start-ups mentorship and networking. Its 44 alumni have raised more than $80m since 2015.
“Everyone wants to help each other grow and be better and bring the city back to life, which is different than other start-up hubs where it’s more of a competition,” says Nooteboom.
"[In San Francisco] everyone is trying to fight for the funding, and you don’t want to give anyone a finger because they’ll take an arm."
The worry is what happens if only those who come from outside reap the rewards. There are anxieties about gentrification and about whether the city’s black population is being pushed out. City officials say Detroit has been trying to avoid this with programs such as an agreement with Fiat Chrysler that residents would get priority for almost 5,000 new jobs at a new assembly plant, due to open next year.
“Detroit does not want to be San Francisco,” says Robinson. “What makes this a truly special place is we have families, communities and neighbourhoods that have been here for generations now.
“They love this place. Hard workers, fighter spirit, the music and the design, and food, that’s what makes Detroit special. And if the whole community doesn’t come along in this, then we lose what the Detroit flavour is.”
- The Daily Telegraph