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The Future of Automotive and Mobility: A Conversation With Malcolm Gladwell

September 15, 2023

Key Takeaways:  

  • The future of mobility looks like perfecting specific-use cases, such as autonomous long-haul trucking.
  • Technology like Uber is priming the new generation to trust high-tech automotive and mobility, paving the way for electric vehicles (EV) and autonomous vehicles (AV), but it also opens the doors for issues in urban areas.
  • The Region’s success is reliant on its qualified talent pool – not legacy automakers.


During the 2023 North Detroit Auto Show, New York Times best-selling author and industry observer Malcolm Gladwell sat down for a fireside chat, presented by Power Michigan – IBEW 58 and NECA, with Autoline Host John McElroy. They discussed the industry’s future, EVs, AVs, and talent’s role in the transition to high-tech.

 The Future of Automotive and Mobility

“When I see it, in the short-term, [I see it] splintering into 100 different pieces – I mean that in a good way,” Gladwell said. Many of the pieces he foreshadows will revolve around individual-use cases of technology – for example, automated long-haul trucking.

“Trucking becomes not another version of the driving everyone else does, but its own very specific thing with specific technology attached to it [such as] dedicated lanes.”

Technology like this would not even require a person to be in the truck cab, but Gladwell cautions that does not equal job loss.

“You still need somebody to onload and offload. You still need someone there if something goes wrong. What you’ve done is improve the productivity of that person, and you allow that person to travel a little longer distance without rest,” Gladwell said. “It’s not a bad thing in the world where we’re short truckers. Given that argument, I’m reassured the human transition cost would be less than we think.”

Cases like this, where technology is perfected for specific uses, demonstrate where Gladwell imagines the automotive and mobility industry going — “that multiplied times 10 is where I see us.”

 Electric and Autonomous Vehicles

EVs and AVs continue to prevail in conversations about the future of automotive and mobility with the inclusion of technology in vehicles steadily increasing. Gladwell used Uber as an example.

He shared how Uber’s model – calling a stranger via your phone to give you a ride to a destination without any required interaction – shows the growing trust people have in technology.

“We’re already training an entire generation of people who use ride services like that to place enormous trust in technology. Is that a huge step for EV?”

But sometimes being too trusting in automotive technology can be detrimental, especially when it’s placed in an urban setting with many pedestrians. Due to increased awareness of the “rationality” of autonomous vehicles, people feel more comfortable cutting those cars off, whether on foot or in their own vehicle, knowing that it will stop.

“I don’t see how you can ever use AVs at scale in an urban environment,” Gladwell said. “In a suburban environment, it works. In New York City, it doesn’t work. People are going to jaywalk nonstop. Where there’s a relative scarcity of pedestrians and kids that want to play hockey on the street, it does work.”

 The Key to Transitioning the Automotive Industry: Talent

Gladwell points to talent as the key the industry’s successful high-tech transition – both for the Detroit Region and its legacy automakers.

“The Region is something that I would be profoundly optimistic about. What the legacy automakers have done over the last few years is gathered an extraordinary amount of talent, scientific and engineering talent, into one area,” Gladwell said. “Time and time and time again, we’ve seen in areas, regions, and cities that it’s the concentration of talent.”

This qualified talent pool makes it so that if anything were to happen to legacy automakers, the Region would remain okay. The talent from those companies would not leave the area en masse; instead, they would be “released” to contribute their skills and experience to the ecosystem, according to Gladwell.

This does not necessarily calm employers, according to McElroy. In fact, despite this pool of high-tech talent, many employers still cite the need for more. McElroy said they want to “turbo charge” the process.

For employers with what Gladwell called “talent-hungry operations,” he encourages the CEOs to go to Washington and engage in policy discussions.

“Do we need more engineering schools in the country? Let’s build them. Let’s make engineering education more affordable. You want to get an engineering degree in this country? You shouldn’t be graduating with $200,000 of college debt. Let’s do practical things. Let’s sit down and talk about immigration policy. If we need to be importing way more engineers from other countries, let’s do it. This is an international industry – we should be able to pick the smartest people from around the world where they are… Those voices need to be heard in Washington,” Gladwell said.