By Leslie D. Green in Crain’s Detroit Business
Do more in less time. Arrive at destinations quicker and safer. Improve work-life balance. These wants have fueled thousands of years of invention and progress, including the advent of the horse-drawn carriage, automobile, rocket ship and Internet.
Today’s mobility innovations have experts predicting solutions with near-future technology previously seen only in science fiction. Consider:
- Safer roads that adjust based on vehicle communications and traffic patterns, dramatically reducing the number of auto-related fatalities;
- Pods that deliver a person from one destination to another; and
- Integrated technologies that would predict when a household will run out of certain supplies and replenish them before homeowners even know they’re needed.
“We are seeing the realization of artificial intelligence taking over tasks that are really human driven. That’s going to be pushed forward at the leading edge by the automotive industry,” said John Verboncoeur, associate dean for research at Michigan State University. “We’re going to see it in your kitchen and in your laundry room and in every stage of your life.”
IHS Automotive, an online source for engineers, estimates that between now and 2035, nearly 76 million vehicles with some level of autonomy will be sold globally. Michigan accounts for nearly $60 billion of the $3 trillion global auto industry. Yet, experts say if approached correctly, the state, also known for its mounting number of high-tech hubs, may find itself at the epicenter of a $10 trillion mobility industry.
Keeping this potential at the forefront, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., through Planet M, is supporting various elements in mobility technology, such as robotics in manufacturing and other outgrowths of this artificial intelligence capability.
“The economic opportunity and necessity for Michigan to play in that personal mobility and shared-use economy is absolutely essential to our future,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber.
The key to Michigan’s future success? Those in the mobility space must acquire an understanding of societal and legal ramifications, properly build upon Michigan’s automotive history to create a far-reaching mobility ecosystem and continue to grow the state’s highly skilled talent base. Moreover, experts agree collaboration is essential — not just between Michigan automotive and tech companies but with public and private entities inside and outside of the state.
It’s easy to limit the definition of mobility to autonomous — self-driving and driverless — vehicles. But the word, and the industry, have far broader implications for businesses, humans, vehicles and other commodities and services.
Ted Serbinski, managing director at Techstars Mobility, a Detroit-based venture capital business incubator, puts it bluntly — and broadly: “Mobility is the movement of people and goods.”
In other words, major auto companies and suppliers can’t just manufacture a car and claim to play in the mobility space. Serbinski explained that the automotive industry needs to shift its focus from just building physical devices to, in some cases, changing business models to offer a variety of services.
Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, for instance, have been partnering with organizations to broaden services they provide customers.
- Ford has been developing electric bikes that, in conjunction with an Apple Watch app, provide bicyclists with weather or fitness data.
- Ford also has Carr-E, a four-wheeled pedestrian-assisted device you can stand on and use to move around or that can carry packages and follow the transmitter you carry as you walk.
- GM is developing predictive technology that tells a driver when his or her car needs maintenance before it breaks down.
- GM also partnered with ride-sharing service Lyft to launch a car-sharing service, called Maven.
Peter Kosak, executive director for urban mobility at GM, said mobility is about access and options and leveraging technology — whether it’s app-based or autonomous.
“(But) if we don’t solve the problem of people wanting to commute together, we’ll continue to be crushed by morning and evening commutes. And if people don’t knock out the friction through psychology or technology then that problem isn’t going to be solved,” Kosak said.
The commute problem is one that’s driving Anya Babbitt, who moved her ride-sharing company, SPLT, from New York City to Detroit in 2015 to be part of Serbinski’s Techstars accelerator. SPLT is working with OEMs and municipalities to learn how it can complement other transportation options, such as van pools and bus lines. “For people to feel confident with other mobility options, we need to have an alignment of multiple services so that individuals can feel, for instance, that they can leave the car behind,” Babbitt said.
To Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the MEDC’s automotive office, mobility means, simply, freedom.
“It’s something that allows us to look beyond where we are now and look for those opportunities,” Kerrigan said. Those opportunities could be in autonomous desks that tell users when they need to stand up and walk around. Or, they could be something larger.
Kirk Steudle, the state’s Director of Transportation, said he had a conversation last month about autonomous ships. “Thinking about that changes the whole business equation,” he said. Read more about those opportunities.
Test tracks and towns
Deploying safe, driverless vehicles is impossible without “infrastructure maturity, technology readiness and regulation,” reports Harvard Business Review in an analysis of the industry this spring.
Carrie Morton is confident such deployment is possible. Morton, deputy director of Mcity, a 23-acre mini community at the University of Michigan crafted for driverless car technology, said Michigan is positioned to research and test many of the collective questions that need to be answered before mobility technologies are fully implemented.
“It is a unique opportunity to learn a lot more than just about the technology, but about the challenges in deployment,” she said. “For instance: OK, now I want to put an autonomous vehicle on the road. How do I work with the Secretary of State to do that? How do I work with the U.S. Department of Transportation? What needs to be in place? I think we’re really starting to exercise the new (autonomous vehicle) laws.”
Because of bills passed late last year, Michigan should be able to operate autonomous ride-sharing services and sell driverless cars in the near future. The first step, though, is testing. While the U.S. Department of Transportation has designated 10 testing sites for self-driving vehicles, the largest deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology in the country resides in Michigan.
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In addition to Mcity, the state is home to the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, where Ford once built the B-24 bomber and GM manufactured transmissions.
Steudle said Michigan jumped in the waters of V2I technology when it was still an idea. “About three weeks after that bridge collapse (in Minnesota in 2007), we were talking about this thing called connected vehicles. So, we put a challenge out to our ITS team and said, ‘Let’s see if we can have the Mackinac Bridge instrumented (with communications technology) before the Labor Day Bridge Walk.’ That was three weeks later. It was temporary, but we did it,” he said.
The same communication mechanisms Michigan used then are what the state is using today in vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) and V2I, Steudle pointed out. Since 2007, Michigan has developed 155 roadside units spread across the state, most of them in Southeast Michigan. For some of it, the state worked in collaboration with the U.S. DOT and CAMP, a consortium of automakers, to do the research. The goal is to instrument 350 miles in Southeast Michigan alone.
To do this, he said, they asked a variety of questions: “Can we make this intersection talk to a car? Can we make the Ford and the GM talk together?”
Once the answer becomes yes — once cars automatically maintain safe distances from one another, alert drivers when they aren’t paying attention, notify them of pedestrians they may not see or warn them of slick road conditions — then experts say the technology will save lives.
“Roughly 1,021 people died on Michigan roads last year. One life is unacceptable. We have to reverse that. Ultimately this technology is about saving lives,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto.
According to Steudle and Morton, traffic fatalities could drop 90 percent when autonomous vehicles deploy on Michigan roads.
Understanding that mobility isn’t just about cars, Mcity created a tech lab where the entrepreneurial community can vet technologies in an environment they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the world. The environment includes all the players in the sector — insurance companies, auto OEMs and Tier 1’s — and allows the innovators to “play in the sandbox” and learn.
“Nowhere else in the country do we have this capability, where you can start from the very beginning and graduate right through into your verification and validation environment where they can support the full ecosystem as we move toward putting these technologies into commercialization,” Morton said.
Mcity and ACM complement one another, said Laurel Champion, ACM’s COO. “We are able to provide the very early stages of research, and there’s the ability, by the end of this year, to come to our site and to be able to test and really work on product development.”
Autonomous vehicles and mobility aren’t just an auto manufacturer issue. William Buller said the military is also interested in the technology. Keweenaw Research Center, a research center supported by external corporate and governmental agency funding in Houghton, Mich., provides an unstructured environment, customizable with ice grooming machines to make the surface road-like for the military and automotive companies.
If that’s not enough, Kettering University in Flint is also putting in a 3-acre road course test track. “It’s designed to be a general-purpose facility, not a dedicated autonomous vehicle facility. But we have Tier 1 corporate partners that are down in Auburn Hills that go out in the parking lot to do tests. We’re 30 minutes up the road. We can certainly do better than a test in the parking lot,” said Craig Hoff, engineering professor and dean of the College of Engineering at Kettering University.
Kerrigan said that while the state is the epicenter of integration of vehicle technology and the proving of vehicle technology, he doesn’t think it’s smart to go it alone. He said collaborating with Silicon Valley is a necessity. “I think a lot of the IT companies in Silicon Valley are really realizing how difficult it is to build a vehicle and how difficult it is to get one on the road and keep it there and bring out the next model, and how much money it takes to do that.”
Nicole Stevenson, vice president for Flex, agreed. “Everybody has the same goals we’re working toward. It’s not really about Detroit vs. Silicon Valley or Detroit vs. Israel or other tech hubs. We’re all trying to work together and get the best for mobility and to solve the issues.”
Ensuring mobility benefits everyone
Industry leaders recognize mobility is about more than business competition and cool technology. It’s about creating access and equality.
Mark de la Vergne, the city of Detroit’s Chief Mobility Officer, noted that mobility technology, particularly when it comes to autonomous vehicles, poses a significant challenge to Detroit because its size likely will make it a complex environment with regards to testing and deployment and because different demographics and populations use technology differently.
“There are lots of things that we need to learn: How different populations use different types of services, different types of technologies,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in this city right now don’t have a phone or don’t have internet access. We’re looking at making sure this is not just something that works for young white kids who haven’t even graduated high school.
“It’s about engagement. If I go to the east side of this city and talk about autonomous vehicles, they’re just going to ask me why the bus isn’t coming. There’s a huge spectrum, and we can’t simply expect that we can drop new things into places, all sorts of places. This question isn’t just in the city. This is suburbs and rural also that are going to need to be figured out. These aren’t just technology solutions. There’s a huge social element.”
Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions at Ford Motor Co., is working with communities across the country to help answer such questions. “The work that I do is directly with cities, and they very much want to see simplicity when this already complex technology, particularly when it comes to autonomy, comes to their cities.” Her goal is to help create solutions to potential barriers.
“As things evolve, there will be more opportunities to work together in pilot projects and how you as a city work on some problems of integrating mass transit, for example,” said Kosak. “I think one area that certainly everyone is working together on now is getting the right ground rules that make the environment conducive to progress.”
Ten years ago, personal mobility and shared-use economy were terms used only in labs and innovators’ garages. Today, economists are predicting spending in the $1.6 trillion range in the industry by 2020.
Kerrigan urged Michigan’s business leaders to stay in the lead of mobility technology.
Stevens concurred. “We are positioned, if we have the talent and if we build the ecosystem properly to have an economic opportunity and a societal opportunity and an opportunity to save lives. And frankly all of us are working on those things together.”
For more about mobility in Michigan, visit PlanetM.com.