Navigant Research Blog

Detroit Versus Silicon Valley

Scott Shepard — November 24, 2015

October 29, Keith Naughton of Bloomberg Businessweek described how the established auto industry of Detroit is competing against the fast emerging auto industry of Silicon Valley (SV). Naughton’s article focuses on autonomous vehicle (AV) systems and examines the different R&D strategies of General Motors and Google, which essentially amounts to a comparison between gradual adoption and rapid innovation strategies to automotive technology. Naughton’s AV focus provides interesting insights, but it’s impossible to ignore the relevance of his comparisons beyond just AVs. For instance, Detroit and SV (the latter including Tesla and perhaps Apple) are each pursuing a different approach to that other disruptive force in the auto industry: electricity.

Detroit’s philosophy regarding electricity is similar to its approach to AV systems. The city has been gradually electrifying existing vehicle platforms, and this is evidenced by the fact that most of the plug-in vehicles Detroit has put on the market have been plug-in hybrids, and the fully electrified vehicles are mostly limited to markets where states have zero emissions vehicle mandates. Alternatively, the SV mantra has been the aggressive pursuit of a fully electrified alternative requiring no customer sacrifices in terms of range or convenience.

Regional Rivalry

The differing approaches have bred a regional rivalry that is demonstrated by occasional quips from industry leaders. Elon Musk often makes headlines with statements that imply Tesla may one day be bigger than GM and that Detroit needs to have a more aggressive electrification strategy. In response, Detroit calls out SV for naivete—when rumors first started to leak that Apple may be developing an electric vehicle, former GM executives Bob Lutz and Dan Akerson both publicly cautioned Apple on the struggles of entering the car business. Additionally, Lutz has continually critiqued Tesla’s business and sales model, assessing a high probability of Tesla’s ultimate downfall despite high praise of the product.

To be fair, these critiques have a strong foundation in reality. Detroit has been historically slow to adopt and produce fuel efficient or alternative fuel vehicles, creating opportunities for other global players like Toyota and Honda to grab significant chunks of the market through hybrids. Arguably, Detroit is likely to lose market share on fully electrified vehicles to other more aggressive global automakers (Nissan, BMW, BYD, and now Tesla).

Meanwhile, SV’s aggressive approach has led to challenges regarding market regulations. Tesla’s struggles with state dealership laws are well known, but Tesla has also run into trouble on software upgrades and referral programs. Additionally, though Tesla’s stock quote is impressive, its record with profits and deadlines is not. The end Lutz has assessed for Tesla has also been well played out by other California automaker startups.

Regardless of the different approaches these two regions characterize, the future U.S. auto industry is not going to exist without Detroit or SV. Detroit needs SV’s tech innovations and probably a little more SV chutzpah when it comes to investing in a new vehicle technology, and SV needs Detroit’s extensive supply chain, manufacturing expertise, and 100 plus years of market knowledge. Notably, however, SV does not need Detroit’s internal combustion engine.

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