Detroit is once again becoming the new technology center for all things mobility

Detroit is Once Again the Center of Mobility Technology

The Significance of Detroit’s Mobility Technology

The automotive industry stands on the brink of a profound transformation, driven by pillars of innovation: electric vehicle (EV) technology, autonomous vehicles (AV) or self-driving vehicles, and new materials science. We hear a lot about the first two, as many manufacturers are deploying EV technology (GM, Ford, Tesla), and some of the biggest names in innovation are working on autonomous technology for cars and trucks (Apple, Google, Magna & LG). However, there’s a third wave of tech that will greatly affect the first two, and have stand-alone applications that move the industry forward. The trend? Material science!

While EV technology encompasses advancements in electric vehicles that promise us reduced emissions and fossil fuel dependence, and autonomous vehicles are driving us toward more connectivity, and truly revolutionizing the way we interact with automobiles, new innovations in materials are making vehicles safer, stronger, lighter and more sustainable.

And many of all of these leading edge developments are taking place in a once familiar hub of advancement – Detroit!

Detroit’s Historical Role in Automotive Innovation

Detroit, often hailed as the “Motor City,” and has history as the epicenter of automotive innovation. Dating back to the early 20th century, Detroit became synonymous with the rise of the American automobile industry, home to iconic brands like Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler. Pioneering figures such as Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing with the introduction of the assembly line, democratizing car ownership and fueling mass production. Detroit’s fertile ground for innovation attracted a wealth of talent, leading to breakthroughs in design, engineering, and technology that shaped the global automotive landscape.

From the Model T to the muscle car era, Detroit’s influence was felt across continents, cementing its status as the center of automotive prowess. However, over the past four decades, Detroit weathered economic downturns, labor disputes, and shifts in consumer preferences. All leaving the city feeling a bit weatherbeaten. But today we see it roaring back.

Today we see a return to the automotive ingenuity that the Motor City was known for. Leading in mobility technology, we now hear similarities between the rush of innovation to Silicon Valley, and the booming mobility tech industry taking hold in Detroit.

Modern Vehicle Design

Detroit has long been hailed as the epicenter of modern vehicle design, with a rich history deeply intertwined with the automotive industry. In recent years, the city has witnessed a resurgence in innovative design concepts and cutting-edge technologies, propelling it to the forefront of the automotive world once again.

The most visible is of course electric vehicles (EVs) from established automakers and startups alike. Companies such as General Motors with their Chevrolet Bolt EV and Ford with the Mustang Mach-E have showcased Detroit’s commitment to sustainable transportation solutions. These vehicles feature sleek designs, advanced battery technology, and connectivity features that redefine the driving experience. Moreover, the push towards EVs aligns with Detroit’s efforts to transition towards a greener and more environmentally friendly future.

Additionally, Detroit’s influence on modern vehicle design extends beyond electric cars. The city remains a hub for automotive innovation, with companies like Tesla, Rivian, and numerous others pushing the boundaries of autonomous driving technology. These developments are not only shaping the future of transportation but also influencing design trends worldwide. From streamlined exteriors to futuristic interiors equipped with state-of-the-art infotainment systems, Detroit continues to set the standard for the next generation of vehicles. Overall, the resurgence of modern vehicle design in Detroit underscores the city’s enduring legacy as a driving force in the automotive industry.

The significance of mobility technology lies in its ability to enhance vehicle performance, safety, and efficiency. Much of this technology lies in advancing new materials. These new materials are greatly enhancing the safety of the vehicles we drive through stronger materials, increased energy absorption (during a crash), and resistance to fire (once one of the prime culprits of passenger injuries).

Meanwhile, lightweighting also plays a crucial role in improving fuel efficiency, performance, and sustainability on all vehicles, be it EV or traditional internal combustion engines (ICE). By utilizing advanced materials such as carbon fiber, titanium, and bio-based composites, automakers can achieve significant weight reductions without compromising structural integrity, leading to both higher performing and environmentally friendly vehicles.

The quest for lightweighting in automobile manufacturing dates back to the early days of the industry when engineers sought to maximize fuel efficiency and performance while minimizing material usage. One of the earliest breakthroughs in lightweighting came with the introduction of aluminum alloys in engine components and body panels, offering significant weight savings compared to traditional steel.

As automakers sought to comply with stringent emissions standards and improve vehicle dynamics, the importance of lightweighting became increasingly apparent. Innovations in materials science, such as carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP), high-strength steel alloys, and new bio-based polymer agents, further expanded the possibilities for weight reduction without compromising structural integrity or safety.

One material that is commonly overlooked as a lightweighting element is plastic. Since it’s widespread adoption in the 1950s and 60s, plastics were used in place of heavier materials such as wood, glass, and even steel. Plastics have advanced in many ways such as having more strength, higher heat resistance, and increased durability. Combine that with plastic’s ability to be molded and shaped easily, and it’s no wonder that today’s vehicles can contain upwards of 700 lbs. of plastic materials. The downside had always been plastic’s effect on the environment. However, today in Detroit all automakers are pushing to be more sustainable.

General Motors, Ford, and Toyota have been actively pursuing sustainability initiatives to reduce their environmental footprint. General Motors, for instance, has committed to an all-electric future, aiming to eliminate tailpipe emissions from new light-duty vehicles by 2035. Ford has similarly pledged to invest billions in autonomous vehicle development, with plans to electrify its most iconic models such as the F-150 pickup truck. Toyota, a pioneer in hybrid technology, continues to expand its lineup of fuel-efficient vehicles while investing in hydrogen fuel cell technology as a long-term sustainable solution. These efforts underscore a collective industry shift towards cleaner and more environmentally conscious transportation options.

Detroit’s Contribution to Research and Development

Detroit’s storied automotive heritage is intertwined with a legacy of innovation in lightweighting research and development. As the birthplace of mass production techniques pioneered by Henry Ford, Detroit has long been at the forefront of manufacturing innovation, driving advancements in materials, processes, and technologies. Today, Detroit remains a global hub for lightweighting research and development, with leading institutions, research centers, and industry collaborations dedicated to pushing the boundaries of materials science and engineering.

Its automotive ecosystem boasts a wealth of expertise in materials selection, design optimization, and manufacturing scalability, making it an ideal environment for fostering innovation in lightweighting. From pioneering aluminum-intensive vehicle platforms to integrating advanced composites in next-generation vehicles, Detroit continues to lead the charge in developing lightweight solutions that enhance performance, efficiency, and sustainability across the automotive industry with some groups totally committed to fostering innovation, like NewLab.

NewLab Michigan Central is an emblem of Detroit’s resurgence as a center for innovation in mobility technology and urban revitalization. Situated within the historic Michigan Central Station, it represents a bold vision for the future of transportation focusing on Energy, Mobility and Materials. Leveraging Detroit’s rich automotive heritage and diverse talent pool, NewLab Michigan Central serves as a catalyst for groundbreaking research, prototyping, and commercialization of innovative solutions aimed at shaping the future of mobility. With its strategic location in the heart of Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood and proximity to Ford Motor Company’s ambitious redevelopment project, NewLab stands poised to play a pivotal role in redefining the city’s identity as a global leader in mobility innovation and urban transformation.

Along with the private sector, are a rich blend of universities steeped in engineering and technology research, such as University of Michigan, Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and Oakland University. All have specialized programs that prepare students for careers in automotive, manufacturing, and sustainability industries.

Detroit’s Current Leadership in Mobility Tech

Detroit’s current leadership in mobility tech is undeniable. Underscored by its rich automotive heritage and ongoing commitment to innovation and collaboration. Detroit’s automakers and research institutions are at the forefront of driving forward the frontiers of mobility technology.

As the world transitions towards a more connected, electrified, and sustainable future of mobility, Detroit’s leadership will continue to be instrumental in shaping the evolution of transportation and mobility for generations to come. Here’s a short list of groundbreaking innovation activity going on in and around Detroit:

  1. Rivian: Rivian’s headquarters are in Plymouth, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, the company is gaining attention for its electric vehicle technology. They are developing electric trucks and SUVs with advanced features and have garnered significant interest from investors.
  2. Waymo: Although not headquartered in Detroit, Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. (Google’s parent company), has a significant presence in the area. Waymo is a leader in autonomous driving technology and has partnerships with various automakers and tech companies.
  3. May Mobility: May Mobility is a Detroit-based company specializing in autonomous shuttle services. They provide autonomous shuttle solutions for urban environments and have deployed their vehicles in several cities across the United States.
  4. Heartland Industries: Heartland is a material science company that engineers natural fibers as additives for plastics, making them stronger, lighter, and more sustainable, all at a lower cost. Detroit is the perfect location as many automotive OEMs and suppliers are eager to find more sustainable solutions when it comes to plastics.
  5. Founded in 2013, is a Norwegian-based robotics company that created smart wheels, which can turn almost anything into a robot, making materials movement in manufacturing infinitely automated.

The New Global Hub for Innovation

Detroit’s potential as a global hub for innovation in automotive technology is unmatched, rooted in its legacy of automotive excellence and renewed commitment to fostering collaboration and entrepreneurship. With its world-class research institutions, skilled workforce, and supportive ecosystem of startups and industry partners, Detroit possesses the critical ingredients for driving innovation across the entire automotive value chain.

As the industry undergoes a shift towards electrification, autonomy, connectivity, and sustainability, Detroit stands poised to lead the charge in developing next-generation solutions. By leveraging its unique strengths and embracing a culture of innovation, Detroit has the opportunity to position itself as a nexus of automotive technology, attracting talent and investment from around the world, all while shaping the trajectory of the global automotive industry for decades to come.

Join us in creating a carbon-negative future. 

Heartland Team