Detroit and Silicon Valley: A New Partnership

Detroit and Silicon Valley: A New Partnership

It’s difficult to think of two areas more different than Detroit and Silicon Valley. One is regarded as a relic of a bygone era and the other the home of tomorrow’s innovations. Even as automotive technologies advance into new, high-tech spaces, Detroit can’t seem to shake its rust-belt image. In the meantime, Silicon Valley companies, like Google and Uber, allowed that area to continue to bolster its image as the home of the future.

For the first half of the 20th Century, Detroit was the Silicon Valley of its day. The automotive industry changed the way we lived and worked. Its product opened up the country like nothing before and it led the way in moving millions of Americans from poverty to an expanding middle class. A variety of factors, from globalization to automation, led to the industry’s decline. Detroit itself became a cautionary tale of how a major city can go wrong. The rise of the tech sector coincided with this decline, with Silicon Valley moving in an opposite trajectory. The explosion of internet technology added fuel to the fire, with the lives of people all over the globe changed as a result.

A New PartnershipStrange Bedfellows

A strange thing has started to happen in the last decade. These two areas, which couldn’t be further away from each other, started to come together. How did this happen? It’s the result of two key areas in-vehicle technology:

  • Electric vehicles (or EVs)
  • Autonomous driving

The founding of companies such as Tesla and Uber made California, for the first time, a major site of vehicle technology development. It makes sense. They’ve built this tech on advanced software and electronics, playing into Silicon Valley’s strengths. Where else would you expect to find the brightest entrepreneurs and engineers ready to launch into the future?

There’s one issue with that: developing a car for the consumer market is not the same thing as developing an app. A vehicle won’t succeed unless:

  • It’s Reliable in extreme environments
  • Hits rigorous safety standards
  • Is easily manufacturable
  • Comes in at a reasonable price point

It’s not something many Silicon Valley tech professionals had experience with.

Detroit to the Rescue

Good thing for them, engineers in the Detroit area had this covered. Cars had become more and more driven by electronics, which led to the growth of high tech engineers in the region working on everything from electronic brakes, to advanced fuel controls, and active safety systems. They’d built the technologies that had made EVs and autonomous cars possible in the first place.

This has led to a crossroads few expected. A new world where the Motor City and Silicon Valley went from opposite ends of the spectrum to partners. We now have Waymo, a Google spin-off, partnering with Fiat Chrysler for autonomous cars. In 2016, GM acquired Cruise, a Bay Area autonomous software startup for over $1 billion. Ford invested over $1 billion in Argo AI, which is actually a Pittsburgh company, though they base their development in California and Michigan.

That’s the tip of the iceberg. Automotive suppliers, such as Veoneer and Aptiv, are growing their Bay Area offices as well. The current recession has put a dent in this, but the automotive industry has made these technologies their top priority. This means they’ll be the first sector to rebound.


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Culture Clash

The process hasn’t been free of speed bumps. Detroit engineering centers, even the high-tech ones, have a different work culture from Silicon Valley start-ups.

We’ve talked to California engineers frustrated by automotive’s more deliberate pace, which is in place to make sure the products meet rigorous quality and safety standards. It’s a case where a software crash could lead to a literal crash.

In contrast, the development of electric, autonomous vehicles is a fast race to a distant goal. Whoever lags will leave with their pockets empty.

This is where that famous, relentless Silicon Valley work culture comes into place. The life-cycle of projects is shorter than what automotive engineers are used to. An engineer in a startup also has a lot more day-to-day interaction with management. A Detroit engineer might call that micromanagement. A Silicon Valley engineer will call it an active, direct relationship with their executives.

Companies working in this space are trying to merge the best of both worlds, but it’s difficult because those worlds can seem light-years apart.

These companies have tremendous technical hurdles to clear. To do that, they must blend these two different cultures into one. It’s a key challenge standing between us and a safer, cleaner vehicle market. It will also be a profitable market, and whoever can crack the code will own a large share of it.

For 30+ years, PRA USA has been on top of developments not only in automotive technology, but the entire tech sector, as we recruit for Electronic, Embedded, and Controls engineers. Contact us to put our industry and job market knowledge to use for you.

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