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The new Motor City? California is home to the 21st century auto startup boom

Henry Payne, The Detroit News on

Published in Automotive News

LOS ANGELES — On a sunny afternoon this fall, automotive engineers and marketers with Mullen Automotive welcomed new customers to check out a fleet of brands, including SUVs, utility trucks and a sports car. The customers got test rides with experts and a look at future products.

But the startup automaker isn’t located in Motor City, Michigan. It’s in Los Angeles.

The auto industry is experiencing a bloom of startups not seen since the early 20th century. But where Metro Detroit and its deep resources of human, entrepreneurial talent were at the center of the 20th-century auto revolution — a sort of automotive Silicon Valley — that startup synergy has shifted today to California.

Startup automakers like Mullen, Canoo Inc., Lucid Motors, Tesla Inc., Faraday Future, Fisker Inc. and others draw on extensive automotive — and software — talent needed to make a new generation of electric vehicles. While automakers of all varieties — startups, legacy, foreign transplants — still rely on Detroit’s extensive expertise, the EV gold rush, electronics revolution and non-union manufacturing have democratized the auto industry away from Michigan towards California and southern auto plants.

Even companies like Rivian Automotive Inc. and Bollinger Motors, which opened their first offices in Metro Detroit, lean heavily on California for talent and capital.

Mullen now owns a 60% stake in Oak Park-based Bollinger, a rare EV startup headquartered in Michigan. While Bollinger’s Oak Park operation is focused on heavy-duty, heavily-government-subsidized Class 4 and 5 commercial trucks, Mullen wants to manufacture the brand’s consumer-focused B1 SUV and B2 pickup truck.

 

“We plan to produce the Bollinger models along with the rest of our product portfolio: the Mullen 5 SUV, GT sportscar, and Class 1 and 3 vehicles,” said Mullen sales director Robert Sanseverino as he stood in front of the Bollinger B2 pickup in Mullen’s sprawling consumer display in Pasadena’s Santa Anita Park.

Sanseverino, a retired, 30-year Ford marketing veteran, is an example of California’s sprawling, human infrastructure essential to startups like Mullen. Sanseverino’s vice president for commercial sales is Don Borthwick, another Ford veteran.

“We started producing the Mullen Three at our assembly plant in Tunica, Mississippi, this summer,” said Borthwick of the company’s Class 3 EV truck — rebadged from a vehicle sold in China by SAIC Motor, China’s largest automaker. Mullen Three production will be followed by the Mullen One — a rebadged EV cargo van created by China’s Wuling Motors.

“These commercial vehicles get us on an early revenue path, then we can move to the retail market in 2025 and our Bollinger, Mullen 5 and GT models,” said Borthwick.

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