Mobile Technology Innovation Transforming the Michigan Auto Industry

The rebound of the United States auto industry is well documented. While the 13.4 percent growth Motown enjoyed in 2012 may be impossible to duplicate, consulting firm LMC Automotive does project the sales of American cars to grow at a 4.2 percent pace in 2013.

“Right now, the U.S. is the healthiest auto market in the world,” John Casesa, a senior managing director with Guggenheim Securities, recently told Reuters.

The Detroit automakers continued their feel-good run at this week’s North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), from where international media hyped the unveiling of the 2014 Corvette Stingray among other domestic vehicles and had Michigan governor Rick Snyder crowing that “we’re making the finest products in the world. We’ve really reinvented ourselves.”

An improved auto industry, of course, is good news for the state of Michigan. University of Michigan economist Dan Grimes estimates automobile and parts manufacturing jobs increased by 22,500 from November 2009 to November 2012 and that half of the state’s job growth over the past three years was due to the auto industry.

At the same time, Grimes told the Michigan Capitol Confidential website that “the auto industry gets more attention than it deserves in Michigan. Our long-run future as a state will not be determined by what happens to employment in the motor vehicle industry.”

Health care services and private-sector education have led the jobs growth in Michigan. Close behind is high-tech employment. According to recent reports by Engine Advocacy, Michigan’s 6.9-percent growth in high-tech jobs was the third highest in the nation.

Can the growth of technology industries be as critical to Michigan as the automotive industry?

Consider that the most notable announcement in the American automotive industry may not have come out of this week’s auto show in Detroit, but rather weeks earlier at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

That’s where both Ford and General Motors announced programs that encourage independent developers to create apps for their in-car software platforms.

Winning the race to perfect the high-tech driving experience will be powerful enough to sway sales figures, industry experts say.

Wired Magazine calls it the race to “put the mobile in automobile.” Car companies are pushing the boundaries of dashboard systems that until now have been mainly reserved for navigation and entertainment. Reports Wired: “Eventually, we’ll see cloud-based apps that work on your car just like they work on your phone. And that’s where things get interesting, because apps could lead us down new roads to greater convenience and safety.”

At a recent NAIAS luncheon, Online Tech co-CEO Mike Klein talked about how cloud computing apps are “the new chassis” of high-tech vehicles. “Cloud computing sets app developers free by removing the headache of buying and maintaining hardware; instead, they can focus on the user experience,” Klein said.

The high-tech trend goes well beyond apps.

The blog CloudTweaks.com claims “cloud computing is bound to change (the automobile) industry and the driving experience as we know it” by reducing energy consumption, improving testing and development and spurring innovation.

General Motors apparently agrees. It is in the midst of transforming its IT infrastructure to help keep better track of new developments (and save money).

The company’s new $130 million Information Technology Operations and Command Center in Warren, Mich., is expected to be complete in 2015 and will be the hub for company’s worldwide technology data. According to a release, “its modular design enables future expansion for handling the increasingly complex computer simulations needed to keep pace with faster design, fuel economy, safety, and quality requirements.”

The Michigan location is one of four planned technology centers across the U.S. as GM brings out-sourced IT work back in-house. An Atlanta location, and the addition of 1,000 high-tech jobs was also recently announced.

“Our strategy is to reach the top talent in the US market and tap the nearby universities,” GM Chief Information Officer Randy Mott told the Wall Street Journal. “These are going to be the best jobs in the IT industry over the next five years since GM is on a transformation journey. They will work on everything from design of vehicles to high touch for the consumer to what is offered in our vehicles.”

There’s a long-held belief that automotive innovation drives the state of Michigan. The role of technology may not be far behind. And the line separating the two continues to blur.

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