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Becoming the Auto Industry's Global Brain

Becoming the Auto Industry's Global Brain
Image credit: Ford Motor Company
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For Michigan’s legendary auto industry to reestablish its preeminent position on the world’s industrial stage, it must lead in the development of new technologies, such as connected and automated vehicles, advanced light- weight-material vehicles and advanced powertrain and propulsion systems, says Nigel Francis, the Senior Automo- tive Adviser to the State of Michigan and Senior Vice President of the Automotive Industry Office of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC).

“As technology becomes the lifeblood driving the industry’s future, Michigan can become its global ‘brain,’” Francis says. “We can and will style vehicles for the global market and lead the evolution where technology and industrial design will be the key elements of product differentiation.”

Michigan, where the auto industry was born, is a natural fit to take the leadership position in the endeavor to create a firm foundation for businesses creating these emergent technologies. It is the traditional R&D hub for the auto industry, and the state receives 70 percent of all U.S. auto-related R&D spending. The auto industry supports more than 500,000 direct jobs in the state—15 percent of Michigan’s workforce is employed in direct automotive jobs—and it contributes $2.8 billion in direct taxes to the state treasury. Nationally, 22 percent of all direct auto jobs are based in Michigan, and the industry supported nearly one-quarter of U.S. GDP growth in the first quarter of 2012.

“These are advantages that we can and must leverage,” Francis explains. “In Michigan we also have a largely untold secret: The state has more vehicle design talent than anywhere else on the planet. And this legacy of innovation can drive our intellectual leadership of tomorrow’s technologies.”

A significant key to making the state’s ambition a reality is ensuring that industry and academia engage as partners to develop the right pipeline of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curricula to prepare the workforce of the future.

And Francis adds that, to position Michigan as the industry leader, the public sector, including the MEDC and the recently created Michigan Automotive Office, must work in tandem with the industry to retain and grow the state’s automotive businesses and attract new ones.

The MEDC’s plan to put Michigan in the driver’s seat includes attracting technology companies to the state to partner with existing companies, encouraging industry partnerships with local education centers and providing financial and other incentives to attract new businesses.

But while financial incentives are important, Francis says the MEDC’s focus over the past few years has been on making them the least important reason to choose Michigan.

“What’s more important is ensuring we offer a business-friendly environment. And we do,” he notes. “That includes a tax structure that is simple and business-friendly, an education system that prepares the workforce, resources that connect employers to workforce talent, both in the state and globally, and programs and services that promote innovation and collaboration at all levels.”

Top talent will be vital to reap the benefits of the new revolution, and Francis believes the industry needs an “image overhaul” to highlight the exciting opportunities it can provide.

“The industry is going to be the cool place to work for technology innovators,” he said. “And we need to put this point across since, ultimately, talent—attracting and developing the best and brightest—will be the key to our shared success.”