The future is now: A glimpse into metro Detroit's mobility ecosystem


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

If automobiles were biological species, Metro Detroit would be their native biome. And when it comes to mobility technology, the metaphor continues.

Viewed separately, Ann Arbor, the City of Detroit, Macomb County and Oakland County, and each area of the larger Southeast Michigan region may appear to be working separately, even competing in the development of connected and autonomous transportation, each building next-generation mobility technology in individual landscapes.

But a look at the whole picture reveals how each regions’ initiatives join to form a single, complete mobility ecosystem, densely populated with an interconnected web of assets, industries, innovations, and transportation expertise. Together, they are moving people, goods, and services more intelligently and efficiently than ever before.

Metro Detroit’s cohesive mobility landscape is evolving, here in the space where the auto industry began. We wanted to better understand how that's happening across the region, so we took a “hike” across the mobility ecosystem of Southeast Michigan to see what's developing in each individual landscape.

Macomb County's miles of connected infrastructure

What's impressive about Macomb County's part of the larger mobility ecosystem is something working in the background, unseen. It's an infrastructure, planned years ago, that is important to the autonomous vehicles of the future, and to the connected vehicles on the road today.

Across 150 miles of connected roadways, Macomb's Department of Roads has installed traffic-monitoring cameras which transmit traffic and weather data to the county's command center, or COMTEC, for emergency, information technology, sheriff's office and traffic operations.

COMTEC is Macomb County's hub for traffic and weather data.

Along the most heavily traveled roads, such as Gratiot, Mound, and Van Dyke, 220 roadside units (RSUs) provide connected technology that is currently being tested through a pilot with General Motors Co., incorporating Cadillac CTS test sedans equipped with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) capability.

"It's an active braking pilot," says Vicky Rad, deputy director for planning and economic development at Macomb County. "If a driver is approaching a traffic signal, and is not braking in time, the unit deploys sensors in the vehicle, and the seat wiggles and prompts the driver to brake." It's a handy alert mechanism to help drivers make informed decisions about how to act in the face of a red traffic signal.

The RSUs are equipped for this function, and much more. In November, Rad touted Macomb's connected infrastructure at the ITS World Congress 2017 in Montreal, where she actively invited vendors to come test their connected and autonomous vehicle technology on Macomb County roads.

"The big story here is that we are fully ready for tech companies to start testing in our live environment, under various traffic conditions and weather conditions. We are proactive in this and we really want to see what technology is out there," Rad says. "Our big vision is to have the entire county connected in this way."

As industry propels itself toward a fully autonomous transportation environment, Macomb county is working to provide a crash-proof infrastructure. "That is a far reaching, but attainable goal. We can use technology to test this and discover whether our connected thoroughfares prevent accidents from occurring," Rad says. "It's about safety first, rather than the luxury of autonomous driving. We are working to help people begin to trust the technology."

Oakland County innovates through public-private partnership

The future of connected roadways in Oakland county is collaborative. On January 9, Oakland County will close the bid window for a countywide connected vehicle infrastructure. With an overarching goal of increasing safety and improving efficiency through real-time vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) data exchange, the county will nurture a public-private partnership, with one or multiple companies, to own and operate a system of short-range communication technology across the county's 2,000 intersections and 5,600 miles of roadway.

This public-private partnership will be the first of its kind anywhere, says Deputy Oakland County Executive Matthew Gibb. "The [connected roadway] implementation requires collaboration and everyone is realizing that. We are looking for multiple aspects of how this system can be deployed and managed, and pushing the envelope of what the future can look like. No one company can do it all," says Gibb.

Several companies have expressed interest, including suppliers and automotive systems companies like Siemens, Danlaw, Magna, and LaCroix. Gibb says the request for proposals favors collaboration to encompass necessary equipment, hardware, software, data, and management needs.

Oakland County has 2.000 intersections and 5,600 miles of roadway.

Within the system exists potential to build revenue through the extra bandwidth, opening extra value to roadway users, as well as a way for the system to pay for itself. "No one is asking the question how do we find the $20 to $25 million to put warning signals at each of the 2,000 intersections in the county? We create a revenue system that someone else can operate," Gibb says.

Revenue streams could be based on consumer need, like push notifications about congestion, speed recommendations for efficiency, and incentives to reroute.

"Maybe the first 300 cars that remove themselves from a congestion event and take an alternate route gain points, which is something being testing in Amsterdam right now," Gibb says. V2I signaling encourages behavior known as cooperative driving, which can reduce commute times and collisions, and eliminate idling, a plus for the environment.

As a whole, connected roadways have little to do with self-driving cars, and more about how Michigan and Oakland county can have the safest transportation system in the world—and the mobility economy is deeply enmeshed in these developments.

"There is a whole network of innovative technologies and economic indicators that depend on figuring out the creation of these environments," says Gibb. "From an economic development and sustainability perspective, it's imperative for our future to be the first to create this."

Safe, scalable, reliable mobility from Ann Arbor startup

The founding team of Ann Arbor's May Mobility brings considerable experience to the autonomous vehicle ecosystem. Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer, started her professional career in a team dedicated to the earliest electric vehicle technology at GM Ventures. Edwin Olson, chief executive officer, and Steve Vozar, chief technology officer, each have research, academic, and practical backgrounds in robotics, and worked in Ford's autonomous vehicle program.

Perhaps that's why they have approached the autonomous vehicle market from a "smaller is better" perspective.

The startup, launched in 2017, connects communities by moving people short distances on designated routes in autonomous electric vehicles that utilize a variety of sensors and mapping programs. By meeting transportation needs in limited, controlled environments, like central business districts, residential neighborhoods, or corporate campuses, they are getting vehicles on the road faster, using technology that already exists.

One example is May Mobility's pilot to shuttle Quicken Loans employees from their Detroit parking garage to office building in completely autonomous vans, with safety drivers along for the ride.

The team recognized the enormous scale of research and development still required to reach Level 4, or automated driving in all road situations, and they scaled back to focus on safety and reliability. They created a limited-scale transportation solution that's essentially ready today, rather than in 2021, the year many manufacturers predict to be on the road.

Work in progress at May Mobility in Ann Arbor. Image: May Mobility.

"We differentiate ourselves because we are carving away complexity in unique ways," says Vozar. "We have the confidence that our vehicles can operate without a safety driver in a significantly faster timeframe than many OEMs."

Safety is the first priority, so this system has undergone rigorous testing. Targeting markets in Michigan, Florida, and Texas, May Mobility plans to be shuttling people in 2018.

"We have leveraged the extensive experience Steve and Ed have in this space, founded on what works and doesn't work in robotics," says Malek. "We're thinking about what we can solve today, and make it simple enough to make the system safe, and do it in a way that is scalable and reliable," says Malek.

Detroit's established mobility industry is startup-friendly

Detroit is smart place to be for mobility startups. Here, a concentration of longstanding automotive knowledge and technical talent blend with an ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship to lead the world in next-generation mobility.

This is why Detroit is so attractive to Techstars Mobility, the first North American accelerator program dedicated to mobility startups, or technologies and services that move people and goods in innovative ways.

Based in downtown Detroit, Techstars Mobility invests in startups from around the globe, bringing them to Detroit for 90 days so they can experience Detroit's business climate, and consider setting up shop here.

"We're focused on investing in the best companies in the world, and simultaneously exposing them to Detroit. We have seen some economic impact because of that. Since our first program in June, 2015, we have invested in 33 startups from six countries," says Techstars Mobility managing director Ted Serbinski. "Those companies have raised $45 million collectively, and are valued at about $200 million."

Two of the companies, SPLT, an enterprise carpooling solution, and Lunar Wireless, a pay-as-you-use mobile service, permanently relocated to Detroit. Together, they employ about 40 people downtown. Five additional companies have opened Detroit offices.

"We aren't experts in mobility, but we have partnered with lots of corporations that are," says Serbinski, listing Michelin, AAA, Honda, Bosch, next47 (Siemens), and InMotion Ventures (Jaguar Land Rover). "Mission wise, we are connecting the startup world to the automotive world. In three years, we have facilitated 7,500 meetings."

At the 2018 North American International Auto Show, Techstars Mobility will showcase 57 mobility startups during AutoMobili-D, an expo specifically for mobility related companies to meet and showcase their innovations. AutoMobili-D connects startups to industry through Match Meetings, a program facilitated by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation's PlanetM initiative.

Mobility innovation revs up in Detroit

For mobility startups establishing themselves in Detroit, the busiest place in the city is the PlanetM Landing Zone. A collaboration between the Detroit Regional Chamber, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and WeWork Detroit, the working hub opened in October with three initial members, and provides a home base for mobility innovators joining the Detroit market.

"We want to make it as easy as possible for the best mobility companies to bring innovation to market in North America," says Devon O'Reilly, manager of Entrepreneurship & Detroit Engagement at the Detroit Regional Chamber.

The PlanetM Landing Zone occupies a full floor of WeWork's Merchant's Row location, and supports the specific needs of mobility startups.

"There's a broad definition [of mobility], but we focus on the automotive technologies," says O'Reilly. "The big value add we provide is the connection between the startup community and the automotive industry here in Detroit."

PlanetM Landing Zone fosters engagement between startups and Detroit's automotive industry. Image: PlanetM Landing Zone.

Each member company uses the workspace differently. "Some have their entire team working from the Landing Zone, and others have a large operation in other parts of the country or the world, and have just a few people establishing a presence in Detroit," says O'Reilly.

Currently, nine companies occupy the hub. Startups from Dubai, Israel, Spain, and Madrid join domestic companies from Seattle, Cincinnati, Silicon Valley, New York, and Corktown. Ford Motor Co. also has a presence on site.

"As an industry partner, Ford got involved very early on in the process and have a five-person team that works often here," says O'Reilly. "We've already seen discussions take place between the startups, and also with the industry partner."

This year, the working hub will host happy hours, pizza lunches, and mobility meetups, all designed to bring together member startups, industry partners and venture capitalists.

Getting the right people together in the room is what the PlanetM Landing Zone is all about, but a rapidly growing urban backdrop adds a certain excitement factor.

"What you can't put on a flyer is the feeling of being in the middle of downtown Detroit," says O'Reilly. "The value of seeing the cranes in the sky and all the construction going on is not measurable unless you are actually here."

Images by Doug Coombe, unless otherwise indicated.

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