Detroit, Detroit

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Remember “The Rust Belt”?

That wasn’t just the place in the middle of the U.S. where manufacturing occurred in a meaningful way and was, it seemed, on the precipice of ruin.

It was also—and most primarily—the Auto Industry.

That’s right: It was an industry that was being tossed onto the scrapheap of history. The auto industry was done. Finished. It was something that was figured to be not only old and irrelevant, but also a contributor to what was destroying and despoiling the planet.

There would be, to gloss R.E.M., a shiny happy future. We wouldn’t actually physically go places to see or talk to people. We would all get together via Facebook. We would all order our stuff from Amazon. (How the goods were to get from the Amazon warehouse to our homes wasn’t actually worked out in this scenario: remember, this was before anyone thought about drones.)

Or maybe the idea was that Detroit (using the city as synecdoche for the auto industry—and no, that’s not Schenectady, which has its own issues) would cease to be relevant and that everything economical and reliable would come from Japan and everything expensive from Germany.

But no matter which way, the issue seemed to be that the U.S. auto industry was done more than a steak on the surface of the sun. (Admittedly a rather far-fetched metaphor for something that would presumably be oxidized in the absence of oxygen.)          

But, sticking with this whole notion of things being burned, Detroit has risen from the ashes like the mythical Phoenix.

Sure, it has gone through a near-death experience. Certainly the companies aren’t exactly what they once were.

But if you’re in the market for a midsize car, a Malibu, 200 or Fusion is as good as anything else in that category, and in some regards, you may be getting more for your money than you otherwise would because of the continued, lagging perception that Detroit Iron isn’t 
as solid as that from Elsewhere.

But Detroit didn’t rust into oblivion.

What’s interesting to note now is that there is a concern that Detroit may be undercut, undermined or otherwise get its legs knocked out from under it by Silicon Valley.

It is well known that Google is making a car, although it is not at all clear whether they are making the car simply as a test bed for their technology. After all, Google is still primarily a software company. If you Google something, you can just as easily do it on something from Apple or Dell or Acer or whatever as you can on a Chromebook Pixel. Interestingly enough, if you look at this page on the Google site for Chromebooks— google.com/chromebook/find/#/—you’ll see that the number of units from others far exceeds Google’s one.

The point it, there would probably be less grief for Google were it to develop the tech, then license it.

Apple? Well, this is a hardware company that has achieved significant success because of its software. I was recently talking to a couple of product development people and they were saying that the big challenge is concurrent engineering. That is sort of surprising to me, given that it is a subject that was all the rage some 20 years ago. Seems like Apple has nailed this while others are still wishing, hoping and praying.        

Again, it would seem as though Apple licensing its technology to a company that shares its design ethos (Audi, perhaps) might be a better way to go. CarPlay can exist throughout the automotive realm, but the AppleAuto (or whatever it might be called) would be something special. (Whenever you see the numbers for Android outselling iOS, realize that Apple commands a premium, Android takes what it can get.)

Detroit isn’t in the least big lagging when it comes to this challenge from Silicon Valley. Nor are OEMs based in other parts of the world unaware of the challenges nd opportunities found in that stretch south of San Francisco and north of San Jose.

If you look at a map of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in California, you’ll see that vehicle manufacturers have set up facilities there, with the Volkswagen Electronics Research Lab the furthest north in Belmont and the Nissan Research Center down in Sunnyvale. There are Ford, GM, BMW, Honda, Toyota, and Mercedes in between.

They’re not going to be caught flatfooted on the side of the road.

And while Tesla is in Silicon Valley—and I think it is great that there is a company that is showing the automotive world another model to almost all aspects of the industry—know that from January through May it sold an estimated 8,500 vehicles, and Chevy moved 15,500 Corvettes.

There is still something to be said for Detroit and that automotive dream.