Metro Detroit cities prepare for autonomous vehicles with smart infrastructure


This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.
This feature is courtesy of Driven, the story of how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

Last spring, Terry Croad started attending quarterly meetings of the Michigan Connected and Automated Vehicle Working Group. As Southfield’s director of planning, he hoped to stay abreast of the latest technology advancements as well as regulatory, financial, security, and other issues tied to the rapidly advancing ecosystem of connected and autonomous vehicles.

Often, he’d be the only planner in a room full of engineers, computer programmers, transportation experts, economic development leaders, and security and defense officials.

Southfield is getting a head start on the inevitable infrastructure changes mobility will require. “We’re already starting to tweak a little bit our land-use pattern and our regulation, and I think as this becomes more and more integrated into our daily lives, it’s going to have a significant impact on the way we park and use cars,” Croad says.

All Metro Detroit cities could look a lot different in the not-so-distant future thanks to the advent of autonomous vehicles and innovative mobility services.
The City of Southfield is planning for future mobility
Features we now take for granted, like 10- to 12-foot-wide driving lanes and expansive parking lots, could be rendered unnecessary in areas where people use connected, driverless cars, or ride-sharing platforms to get from point A to point B.

That’s why it’s crucial for local government officials to stay on top of the latest developments in connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) technology and adjust their infrastructure and land-use plans accordingly, says Croad.

Experts estimate that autonomous vehicles will be commonplace within 15 to 20 years. “As a [planning] profession, we need to be embracing this earlier than later ... The earlier we start talking about it and getting our elected officials at least aware that this is coming, better off we’re all going to be,” he says.

Southfield even included a section on “innovative transportation opportunities” in the master plan it updated in 2016. It stressed the need to be proactive to understand the impacts of such advancements so it could better plan and invest for the future.

That kind of awareness is one of the biggest things communities can do to prepare for CAVs, says Valerie Sathe Brugeman, senior project manager at the Ann Arbor-based Center for Automotive Research. Brugeman recently co-authored a “Future Cities” report commissioned by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) on the potential benefits and challenges of CAV technology to communities.

At this point she hasn’t seen Michigan communities drastically change their roads, intersections or pedestrian walkways, but she said big changes could be needed as more people use autonomous or shared vehicles.

Intelligent use of space

Since CAVs should be able to stay in their lanes better than vehicles with drivers, roads of the future could have narrower lanes, allowing more space for pedestrian paths, drop-off lanes or other uses. There’s a possibility these technologies could result in fewer vehicles on the road, meaning fewer lanes would be needed. Or it could have the opposite effect, and result in increased vehicle miles traveled with more people opting to commute further to work or using autonomous cars that drive around with no occupants after drop-offs, Brugeman says.

Parking needs also are expected to change. A driverless car could drop passengers off at their destination and then either park itself off-site, or continue driving to pick up different passengers. That would reduce the need for parking spots in prime locations as well as shrink individual parking space sizes. Autonomous vehicles can park closer together if there are no passengers who need to open doors.

As cities build new parking structures, they should consider making them retrofittable so they could be transformed for office space or recreational use as parking needs decrease, says Brugeman. Communities also could change zoning regulations to dictate the maximum number of parking spots instead of minimum number of spots for particular developments.
Southfield recently conducted an overhaul of its parking standards to take these trends into consideration. Croad wants to reduce the parking ratios required for certain land uses and shrink the space between aisles.

Future planning for Michigan cities

While Southfield is considered ahead of the pack in acknowledging the potential impacts of CAVs and other mobility advancements, it’s not the only Metro Detroit community taking action. Last year the City of Detroit created the Office of Mobility Innovation and named Mark de la Vergne its chief.

“The fact that they now have a chief of mobility innovation is telling of the value they place on the topic and the technologies surrounding it,” Brugeman says.

Detroit recently won a nearly $2.2 million federal grant to deploy vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) communication and detection technologies at intersections in high-traffic areas in Southwest Detroit, the Riverfront, Corktown, and the Livernois-McNichols corridor. De la Vergne says the connected corridors should improve traffic safety and reduce emergency response times.

The grant will be a jumping off point to understand how and if the city could scale the technology, and what kind of infrastructure it would require.

“Knowing technology is changing a lot, I think that’s the challenge we all face, but at the same time, we want to be able to start getting some of this stuff in the ground so that we can start learning,” de la Vergne says.

Michigan is a national leader when it comes to developing, testing and promoting CAV technology. There are at least 115 dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) roadside units installed throughout the state for vehicle and infrastructure connectivity, according to the Future Cities report. The Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is partnering with local and state entities to work on several CAV projects, such as allowing transit signal priority to SMART buses in Macomb County with the goal of improving efficiency and reliability.

“We have all these physical assets here that really make this area unique to other parts of the country,” Brugeman says, noting that one of Michigan’s biggest advantages is the collaboration between MDOT and the MEDC in concert with the auto industry, universities and other entities.

“They recognize the need to remain a leader, because there are a lot of other communities that are vying for a leadership position in this race for CAVs,” she says.

Visit Driven and learn how the Detroit region is leading the world in next-generation mobility.

Photo by Doug Coombe.
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