San Jose, Austin, Cambridge, San Francisco … Detroit?
Most people don’t think of the Motor City as an incubator of tech innovation. But as both Big Tech and nimble startup culture have turned their attention to the auto industry over the past half-decade, lured by the promise of driverless cars, both sides have seized on a new opportunity for partnership — one that’s partly the product of a joint moment of necessary humility.
As the Silicon Valley mantra of “move fast and break things” meets the unforgiving reality of the urban road, Detroit is becoming the natural home to dozens of auto-tech ventures. Harnessed correctly by rational regulation, Detroit can view the emerging industry of autonomous-vehicle technology not as just a job creator, but as a way to improve quality of life for residents and commuters.
A decade ago, as Detroit was hurtling toward municipal bankruptcy and the region’s auto industry was mired in economic crisis, it might have seemed obvious that the next generation of automotive research and development would find its natural home in Silicon Valley. On the software side, Uber and Lyft were building headquarters in San Francisco. On the hardware side, Tesla, too, was making California its home. The West Coast would further build on its advantage: a critical combination of tech brainpower and startup brashness. Who needs lumbering old car companies?
But in the past few years, tech has absorbed two lessons. First, building a car is hard. Of course, building Google was hard, too. But a company that wants to build a car from scratch or sell a driverless-tech innovation to an existing auto company must understand how a physical assembly line works, something that the non-hierarchical tech world hasn’t done on a mass scale, but that the Detroit region has long been perfecting.
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