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“There’s no time to lose:" Why Detroit should claim its leadership of mobility sector

Dave Doe

The Next Idea

The North American International Auto Show begins its media previews on Sunday in Detroit. The show opens to the public on Jan. 14.

Along with the gleaming displays of new vehicles, the show will be a gathering place for innovators from many backgrounds, focusing on the future of mobility.

Chris Thomas has worked in the auto industry, served in Iraq and is now the co-founder and partner of Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm. He’ll also be a speaker and panelist at the auto show.

Remaining the "Motor City"

Thomas has goals for the Motor City. He thinks it has a big role to play in the future of mobility innovation.  

“I’ve said for many years that Detroit’s past and present positions it perfectly to drive the future of mobility – and not just in the city, or in Southeast Michigan, or state or even the country, but around the world,” he said. “We have all the attributes that give us the ability to do this.”

Detroit is the biggest transportation technology cluster in the world, he said.

But the mobility industry is “evolving incredibly fast.” And the other mobility players want to win.

“So it’s incumbent on us to actually take that to heart and work incredibly hard to continue the decades and the century of leadership we’ve had when it comes to the movements of people, goods and services around the world,” he said.

What does “mobility” mean?

Fontinalis Partners, Thomas’ firm, looks at the “next generation mobility,” he said. “The movement of goods and services empowered by technology.”

The venture capital firm has invested in companies and entrepreneurs working to revolutionize movement of all sorts, be it on the road, rails, bike lanes, air, autonomous sector, in the ocean, and more. That includes autonomous vehicles and drones. They focus on the global supply chain.

"There wasn't always, frankly, a lot of attention or a lot of passion around mobility. It wasn't very sexy when we started, and it's incredibly sexy now."

“And all of these things we kind of look at through the prism of what we call the ‘mosaic of mobility’ – individual companies that are going to be leaders from a siloed perspective, that are moving in an individual mode, or that are empowering an individual sector.”

They also work with “horizontal technologies,” including machine learning, artificial intelligence and big data analytics.

In this way, he said mobility encompasses a broad landscape.

“And I’m a huge proponent of the need to look at it broadly,” he said, “to make sure that we’re not limiting ourselves and just kind of looking through this from an old paradigm and rather, really taking advantage of what this space is on a forward-going basis.”

When he speaks at the auto show, Thomas said his message to the auto companies, tech companies and people interested in mobility will focus on ensuring Detroit’s relevance in the new mobility ecosystem. 

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