The future of car technology isn't in Detroit or Silicon Valley. It's in Ann Arbor.

Director of the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center Huei Peng says Detroit is heading toward becoming more of a "Mobility City" than the "Motor City." But even as he makes the suggestion — related to the Big Three's investment in automated and connected vehicles, as well as ridesourcing technologies — he's speaking from Ann Arbor, where, despite the Detroit zip codes of the car makers testing them, those industry-disrupting innovations are being tested. 

Perhaps Ann Arbor is the real Mobility City.  

"The key is the experts. The University of Michigan researchers [have] more than 100 years of expertise in automotive and technology development," says Peng. "Because of the experts we have, Ann Arbor becomes the natural choice."

Locals may be familiar with the fact that thousands of connected vehicles began driving around town in 2012 as a part of MTC's Connected Vehicle Safety Pilot Model Deployment sponsored by the US Department of Transportation. And it wasn't just proximity to the University that made Ann Arbor the ideal location for the test, which continues on today. It's the quality of the volunteer pool available to do the testing. 

"The community is full of intelligent people and people who love technology, and they volunteer to help the university research," Peng says. 

Maven: A local pilot program 

Annalisa Esposito Bluhm, communications manager for GM's new car sharing service Maven, echoes that sentiment when explaining why, of all the cities in all the world, Ann Arbor was chosen for the first city-wide test of the innovative service. About 100 Ann Arborites, including numerous U-M faculty and students, are a part of the initial Maven pilot program, which began Jan. 18.

"The opportunity with Ann Arbor has to do, not only with the University, but early tech adopters and people who are energetic and enthusiastic," says Bluhm. "That's a major reason why Ann Arbor became the choice for our lead market here." 

What makes Maven so different from car sharing services Ann Arborites may have tried before, like Zipcar, is the technology it employs. The user's smartphone becomes the vehicle's key fob, allowing them to locate, unlock and even remotely start the car from the mobile device. The vehicles are also loaded with connectivity features, including OnStar, Apple CarPlay, satellite radio and wifi, and will eventually offer local lifestyle perks. That's a lot of tech packed into one car, so GM needed to test it all in an educated, tech-savvy market. 

These volunteers are invited to not only test the service, but also connect with GM about their experience via sharing selfies, experiences and feedback through a Facebook group and WhatsApp, as well as in-person events. The program is starting small, with just eight cars available across the 11 locations, but the number of vehicles will increase this week. 

As of last week, the Maven team was getting excited about their first transactions, and forwarded the first selfie shared by a user around via email. 

"We all had a high five moment," Bluhm says. "It's great that people are comfortable enough sharing a selfie. That's awesome, and that's the type of relationship we're trying to foster."

An innovative city within the city

A very different type of mobility testing is happening less visibly on a 32-acre, $6.5 million facility on U-M's North Campus unlike any other in the world. MTC's Mcity is an entirely fabricated urban environment, with everything from crosswalks to pedestrians to stoplights to storefronts. Though the building facades have nothing behind them and the pedestrians are actually robots, every feature of the facility is connected. This allows automated and connected vehicles, for the first time, to be safely tested in a cityscape. 

And Ann Arbor was the natural home for such a groundbreaking facility. While most people think of Detroit as the historic home of automotive innovations, says Peng, "behind the scenes, the University of Michigan has been very strong in automotive engineering for many years, beginning with during World War I, we were training engine mechanics for the U.S. Army."

Since then, U-M has been heavily involved in the development of automotive technology, leading all the way up to last July when MTC held Mcity's opening ceremony. While finishing touches on the facility continue, car makers and other MTC partners have already been testing their mobility technology of the future on Ann Arbor's north side, including testing of Ford's Snowtonomy technology, which challenges automated vehicles with inclement weather. 

Before they're let loose to change the way the people interact with cars the world over, Ann Arbor will be where the mobility technology of the future will be refined. 

Ann Arbor and the future of mobility

And one of the first places automated cars will be let loose into the real streets? Yup. Ann Arbor. In the next two to three years, MTC has a vision to be testing a small number of automated vehicles on Ann Arbor's streets, and to scale up the number of cars involved over the next decade.

"We want to be the place where we make major developments and early deployments," says Peng, "and learn from the process to see how the technology can help the community and society." 

That makes the streets of Ann Arbor the epicenter of sorts for the mobility options of the future that will likely spread worldwide. Not too shabby a role for Tree Town. And, likewise, how Ann Arborites use Maven cars will help GM determine how to tailor the program to, not only local users in the future, but Maven users nationwide. 

"Their experiences will shape how we better this program for residents across the United States," says Bluhm. "I think that's pretty incredible, when you think about that, to be part of something that massive."

Natalie Burg is a senior writer at Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

Hey! Like this story? Then you should "LIKE" Concentrate on our Facebook page.  Click here to show us a little like AND/OR follow us on Twitter @ConcentrateA2
Signup for Email Alerts