Energy & Green Tech Manufacturing

Remaking Detroit Is More Than the Sum of Its Parts: A Car Guy’s View


A 3D-printed prototype shift knob created using Ford’s OpenXC research platform.

As a consumer, it is easy to take for granted the innovation needed to create automobiles that are more appealing, leave a smaller environmental footprint, and are manufactured more efficiently. But for industry insiders immersed in the operations of delivering products, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.

By a quirk of fate, having moved from the Silicon Valley to work in Dearborn 17 years ago, I wear a lens of both an outsider and an insider that offers me a unique vantage point on the remaking of Detroit: I can see how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The repurposing of the numerous “parts” and assets located in the greater Detroit region is underway, and this, over the long term, will help reduce the local economy’s dependence on the automotive sector. Yet, cars and Detroit remain inseparable.

Cars, when made accessible as platforms for third-party innovation, present a fertile ground for “democratizing innovation,” to borrow a term from Eric Von Hippel at MIT. These platforms need to be supported by three strong legs: technology, a sustainable business model, and an enduring social incentive that makes it fun to work on the platform and share the learning with others. The tools for innovation, certainly in the context of digital services and products, are now accessible to anyone with a network connection. Digital innovation might not seem relevant to the remaking of Detroit, as it doesn’t conjure the classic image of manufacturing, but the tools that democratize the innovation of goods, products, and services are becoming readily available. Examples of these tools are desktop 3D printers and places like TechShop, where you can build your dreams and learn from peers.

In a 2010 conversation with Dale Dougherty, the founder of Maker Media, we talked about how it had become increasingly difficult for individual users to modify cars, even to just enjoy making them slightly different, the way it had been possible decades ago. We spoke of the day when open-source access to cars and a set of affordable tools would empower makers and developers to add value in previously inconceivable ways.

That day has arrived. In January 2013, Ford announced an open-source research platform called OpenXC. OpenXC, with the approval of the manufacturer, enables read-only access to a limited set of annotated data from the manufacturer’s cars via the standard on-board diagnostics (OBD) port. There are a number of OBD port-based data-access devices, so what makes OpenXC interesting to a maker-developer? It comes along with a rich set of programming tools that are part of the Android application development environment. Further, OpenXC comes with a growing set of open-source hardware specifications. Together, this makes it a rich platform for software and hardware innovation.

With vast digital programming resources at the disposal of the maker or developer, and affordable access to mechanical and electronic tools via membership-based spaces such as TechShop, promising OpenXC-enabled prototypes have already been created. One example is a haptic automobile transmission shift-knob, created as a functional prototype in just a few months with a custom electronics board and a 3D-printed prototype. What’s in a shift-knob? Not much, until it vibrates to recommend an upshift or downshift, or until it glows at night to indicate the need to shift gears. Open platforms such as OpenXC and its toolkits are also valuable in Developer Challenges that engage “the crowd.” An example is Ford’s Personalized Fuel Efficiency App Challenge, which was announced in April 2013, and is now in the final stages of judging. This challenge elicited 23 finalists, engaged a vast community of developers and experts, and helped articulate the story that the car and its ownership experience can truly be made bigger than the sum of its parts.

What does this mean for Detroit? Detroit has a number of valuable “parts”—sheer human talent; collective experience in manufacturing, technology, and product development; and ready access to air, land, and sea transportation. Detroit may no longer just be about cars, but, by ensuring Detroit is a platform for value creation, technology, transportation solutions, and the arts can all flourish here. These times herald the era of a democratized techonomy—an economy that will flourish through democratized innovation.

K. Venkatesh Prasad is the Senior Leader for Open Innovation at Ford Motor Company and a member of its Technology Advisory Board. Based in Dearborn, Michigan, he also oversees Ford’s Silicon Valley Lab in Palo Alto, California. Prasad is a speaker at the Sept. 17 Techonomy Detroit conference.

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