Detroit Free Press
Carol Cain
Dec. 30, 2023

What makes Detroit the Motor City? The most obvious answer is that it is the center of the U.S. auto industry and as such it and the region are defined by over a century of moving people with machines.

But as the industry grows and evolves, especially because of new technology, questions come up about its future. It impacts every pore of our community, our region, our politics and our state as a draw for more residents.

As we enter 2024, I believe there are four questions that will help define what the Motor City’s prospects are as we head into the new year. Here are the questions, and some answers I’ve pulled together after many conversations with top leaders in the region.

Is it time for the Detroit auto show to return to its January roots?

A few years of being held in the fall after the Detroit Auto Dealers Association, with its partners, moved it from January to September allowed people to wear sandals, with no jacket needed to attend or cover the show but the switch didn’t do much to increase traffic or attention for it.

Which is why there’s a growing drumbeat of CEOs I’ve talked to who want to move it back to January.

January may be less convenient (with winter coats and boots needed) but it’s a month that commands greater attention for the show, with fewer things going on (which is better for manufacturers, tech firms, businesses and hotels, too, as they get a boost during a slower month with fewer distractions).

September is always busy with school, football games, etc., to take attention away from the show.

Holding it in winter is how it all began 100 years ago.

Rod Alberts, executive director of the DADA , told me this week on “Michigan Matters” that conversations were being held about the show but that’s all he would say.

I never thought I would say this, but, count me among those who miss the old days — freezing weather and all — and know it would shine brighter in January where it belongs.

Will Detroit hold onto its Mobility Capitol moniker?

If actions and conversations in 2023 are a barometer, the momentum would lead some to say the answer is probably yes.

As one example, the Michigan Central Station has been coming to life since Bill Ford championed the venture when Ford Motor Co. bought the station in 2018 and began investing over $1 billion to turn the iconic shuttered train station into a mobility/innovation hub.

Michigan Central Station’s grand opening is expected to be held this spring.

It has proven to be a catalyst as the nation’s first wireless-charging public roadway for electric vehicles was unveiled near it in November. The quarter-mile stretch of 14th Street showed how inductive-charging coils made by Israeli startup Electreon (located inside NewLab there) can power an EV.

“The Michigan Central Station will play a key role in fundamental areas which will drive economic growth in Detroit, the region, and our state,” said Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MICHauto. “Michigan Central and Newlab offer an exciting glimpse into the future trajectory of our economy and potential to develop, retain and attract the tech talent to power Michigan’s growth.”

Will EV sales continue to grow or slow down?

Sales of EVs grew to over 1 million in the U.S. in 2023 — up from 713,000 the year before, according to J.D. Power.

But some experts say external conditions may impact that momentum.

“Market forces are at work and the pace of EV adoption and growth has slowed,” MICHauto’s Stevens said. “Vehicle cost, the lack of charging infrastructure, consumer trepidation regarding issues like range, Tesla price cuts and high interest rates are causing companies to slow their pace of investment.“

Another concern: Differing views of candidates on whether to push for EVs as the country enters the 2024 presidential election season.

On one side of the debate, I talked with U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at the Free Press’ Breakfast Club, where she outlined how the Biden administration was encouraging companies and consumers to consider EVs. The Inflation Reduction Act, which increased tax credits for qualifying new and used EV purchases, also is aimed at helping to bring EV costs down for buyers, by $3,750 or $7,500.

On another side is former President Donald Trump, who leads polls as the potential GOP nominee in 2024. In an exclusive interview with Trump at the Oakland County Republican Party Lincoln Dinner this year, he told me EVs would damage Michigan’s economy and he was not a fan of federal policies to encourage EVs.

Yes, this race has a lot of CEOs on edge. “I expect it to be even more exciting and momentous than 2020,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Ballenger Report.

Added David Dulio, distinguished professor of political science and director of civic engagement at Oakland University: “The 2024 election cycle is going to be very combative. … The presidential race is going to be one for the ages if Biden and Trump are the general election candidates.”

interviewed Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer two weeks ago. Her administration sees a brighter future tied to EVs and battery manufacturers.

She’s one of five national co-chairs of Biden’s reelection campaign and expects to see more of Biden as Michigan remains a vital swing state.

After losing population, can Michigan gain residents?

Speaking of the governor, she appointed a task force of CEOs and community leaders to offer their input on how to gain population in the state and it came out with a new report of suggestions in December. She also appointed Hillary Doe as the state’s growth officer.

Business leaders are joining in on the issue, including the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“If we continue to lag the growth of other states, we can continue to expect a shrinking tax base and diminished political power in Washington,” said Sandy Baruah, president and Chief Executive Officer of the organization.

The chamber will shine a light on it at its Detroit Policy Conference on Jan. 11. The headline on this issue: Stay tuned.