The Future of Auto. And Fun.

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There is an abiding concern that seems to be increasing of late. It’s that there is a disinterest among young people regarding the auto industry.

No, I don’t mean the issue related to not caring a great deal about cars and trucks, seeing them less as objects of lust and more as simply transportation. First Zipcar and now Uber: Do you really think that either of these two services would have grown were it not for the fact that fewer people care about ownership?

Yes, there is that whole issue of comparative indifference, with the comparison being with an earlier generation. (I was driving on Telegraph in the Dearborn/Dearborn Heights vicinity on a Saturday afternoon in late July and noticed cars including a ’36 Ford Roadster and a 1970 Oldsmobile 442. And then I saw that there were numerous folding chairs setup along the side of the road. And there probably wasn’t a single person in one of those chairs who didn’t have their driver’s license in 1970, and that’s the younger among the group. That earlier generation.)

What I mean is that the young people don’t seem to think that the auto industry itself is all that attractive as a career possibility. Silicon Valley, yes. Southeastern Michigan, not so much.

Auto companies have established outposts in the Valley, of course. This is a necessity as there is a greater integration of electronics and communications within and without vehicles. Several years ago, when he ran the then-existing Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy came to Detroit—came back to Detroit, because this is where he was raised—and had the temerity to suggest during a presentation to automotive execs and engineers that in the not-too-distant future, cars would become nodes on the Internet. It’s probably a good thing that there weren’t torches and pitchforks handy, because that’s the tenor of the reaction. Turns out McNealy was right. And you can just ask the folks involved in U-Connect about that issue of connectivity.

Anyway, while there is a need for people to work at those auto facilities in and around Santa Clara County, there is a greater need for young people to take positions in places like Dearborn, Warren and Auburn Hills.

The auto industry needs young people who are interested in developing and producing vehicles and components.

To be sure, electronics are playing a more massive role in automobility. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are a whole lot of things like stamped and machined parts, moldings and assemblies, springs and gears and brackets and . . . Yes, it is fair to say that it is more about “mechatronics”—the intersection of mechanical, electrical, computer, and communications engineering—than straight-up mechanical or electrical componentry.

But at the end of the day, we don’t drive code. We drive physical, tangible objects. And the auto industry needs to have the new and next generation of bright young people filling its ranks to develop the multitudinous products that make the industry what it is.

One afternoon, I heard some people in the industry having a hand-wringing conversation about the disinterest among young people. Two days later I was at the 2015 Maker Faire Detroit (makerfairedetroit.com) and had any notion that there is a lack of interest among young people when it comes to technology—including automotive-related technology—completely exploded.

For one thing, there was the amazing array of students who are on the FIRST Robotics teams throughout the area. (FIRST is an acronym for For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) They were jousting in a battle based on material handling: stacking part containers with their robotic devices. Any manufacturing operation is based on moving parts and assemblies, packaged or not, and here were people having fun doing it.

People are tripping all over themselves when it comes to “addi-tive manufacturing.” There inside The Henry Ford Museum I saw developments from the whimsical to the serious (i.e., game pieces to prosthetic devices) that were printed—I mean additively produced—on equipment some of which looked like it was more related to the Erector Sets of yore than something styled by consumer electronics companies. And there were young people engaged across the board.

I saw people wearing T-shirts that said “Bazinga!” and “Stark Industries.”

And it comes to that. Fun. Engagement. Curiosity. Pride. Commitment. Creativity.

Especially fun.

Some may tut-tut and say that the work of the auto industry is serious. And it is. But it doesn’t have to be solemn. And you go to a Maker Faire in Dearborn and you see not what the future of the auto industry can be, but who it can be.