Announcing a first-of-its-kind connected corridor

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a recap of Thursday’s connected corridor announcement.

Guests: Trevor Pawl, State of Michigan chief mobility officer, and Collin Castle, manager of the Michigan Department of Transportation's (MDOT) Intelligent Transportation Systems program.

Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced that the State of Michigan has entered into a contract with Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP), the urban innovation business of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), to build a first-of-its-kind automated vehicle-only corridor that stretches from downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor. SIP has established a new entity, Cavnue, to work with MDOT, Ford and the University of Michigan to develop the corridor.

Joining the governor for the announcement were Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist; MDOT Director Paul Ajegba; Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) Director Jeff Donofrio; Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co.; U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow; U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, Brenda Lawrence and Rashida Tlaib; and Khalil Rahal, assistant Wayne County executive.

Speakers focused on the economic opportunities and why it makes sense to continue mobility pioneering where the auto industry was born.

As Bloomberg NEF analyst Alejandro Zamorano-Cadavid said in a Bloomberg story, "Given the auto-tech cluster already in Michigan, it makes sense for the state to provide a corridor that will help its biggest industry adapt to a world with less cars and increasingly more shared autonomous vehicles."



Narrator: It's time for Talking Michigan Transportation, a podcast devoted to the conversations with people at the forefront of the ongoing mobility revolution. In the state that put the world on wheels, here's your host, MDOT Communications Director Jeff Cranson.

Jeff Cranson: So, once again, welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. This is a special week for mobility in Michigan, as we were privileged to be part of a big announcement yesterday. We're recording today on Friday, August 14, 2020, and on Thursday, August 13, MDOT officials joined officials from the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and several elected officials at the federal level, and our governor and lieutenant governor to announce the first-of-its-kind connected corridor that will link Detroit and Ann Arbor, and, we think, will probably a prototype for big things that will be happening elsewhere in the state and in the country. First, I want to introduce Trevor Pawl, who's the state of Michigan chief mobility officer and a second time guest on the podcast. Trevor, thanks for being with us.

Trevor Pawl: Yeah, it's great to be here.

Jeff Cranson: And Collin Castle, making his first appearance, is the manager of MDOT's Intelligent Transportation Systems program, and was really the lead and the chief architect on MDOT's input on this contract that had to be inked in order to make this announcement. So, Collin, thanks for taking the time to do this.

Collin Castle: No problem. Morning, Jeff.

Jeff Cranson: Good morning. So, Collin, as someone has been working with industry engineers and academics and federal government officials on how transportation infrastructure will support connected and automated vehicles, tell us what this announcement means.

Collin Castle: Yeah, I think this is this is huge, Jeff. So, you know, over the past several years we've been really working with the industry as well as, you know, the government to try and understand what's the best way to, you know, accommodate these new technologies, like automated vehicles. What we found is that there really is a huge role that the infrastructure can play, so, you know, this project really looks at it working directly with industry as well as the communities and users of these technologies to be able to implement kind of the first of a kind, best-in-class infrastructure that really is optimized for these technologies to operate efficiently and safely, so we can fully realize their potential. It's already a safe technology, but I think, you know, making the right infrastructure investments can really take these things to the next level, so very exciting.

Jeff Cranson: So, getting to this point it was a big deal for you and your team. You've been working on this, largely behind the scenes, for some time. So, just, I don't know, talk a little bit about what it means to your folks, and why this is a, you know, it's the beginning of the beginning, we know. There's a long way to go and a lot will evolve, but, you know, why this feels special.

Collin Castle: Yeah, I mean it's been very exciting. I think, you know, we've—as we've worked with the industry, you know, through a number of mobility challenges and on a number of, you know, other efforts we've really heard that if the state of Michigan could take the lead on, you know, making infrastructure investments they're just as innovative as the technologies that are going in the vehicles that that could really go a long way. So, being able to develop a great project to make those investments, and be able to really look at, you know, all the opportunities we have from a from an innovation perspective and our infrastructure, whether that be physical, digital, et cetera, to really bring these technologies to the forefront and use them on a more wide scale, in an optimized fashion, is really, really exciting, and, you know, everyone on our team's really excited. I think the reason why the public should care is that, you know, these technologies can be used to do a lot of great things. I think when you think about, you know, the regional transit conversation in southeast Michigan, we can use automated technologies in the corridor to really, you know, augment that and provide better mobility options for our citizens. I think as you look at the corridor there's opportunities for continuing economic growth and looking at, you know, growing small businesses, for example, along the corridor. I think really from a from a safety perspective, you know, these—we still have a lot of fatalities on our roadways every year, and these technologies have a lot of promising opportunity to continue to drive those numbers down towards zero, so those are all things that I think really should be why the public cares.

Jeff Cranson: So, we had quite a quite a representation at yesterday's announcement. Let's listen to a minute to what the governor had to say in her remarks.

Gov. Whitmer: Today we are taking the first steps toward enabling the world's first corridor level infrastructure that will support the deployment of connected and autonomous vehicles here in Michigan. As we get to work on fixing our roads today, it remains critical that we place smart infrastructure to be ready for the roads of tomorrow. What may be the world's most sophisticated roadway will be built here in Michigan to help increase the safety, efficiency, resilience, and operations of roadways in the not so distant future.

Jeff Cranson: So, Trevor, obviously leading this kind of groundbreaking announcement with the governor, the lieutenant governor, you know, members of our congressional delegation, and Bill Ford, it's a pretty big deal, especially when you're just a few months into your new role. So, tell me, what you think this means for Michigan and our citizens short and long term.

Trevor Pawl: Yeah, so, it's one of those events that underscores that regardless of our differences, regardless of the environment that we live in, and 2020 has been a hard year, when people put their mind to something, and when you have a region that just that cares so much about this industry, anything can happen. I think the idea that this is high tech should be something that is exciting to some, but maybe to others it's a little scary, like is it now—am I going to lose a lane in my neighborhood? But the truth is— what I love most about this this project is that it's a co-creation process, and the team that brought this to life was looking to not only sort of lead the world, but also improve community access to safer and more equitable transportation. This, I believe, will be a tool over time to help people get to their jobs a little faster. This will be a tool to help with, let's say you're a small business owner, curbside drop off and pick up, even, in some cases, if you're a city manager, curbside monetization, looking at new business models to help make up some of the revenue that's been lost through the years. So, we begin, after this announcement, on a two-year journey of feasibility to determine more about the route, and then most importantly more on how this project can catalyze communities and make them safer and more productive and remove mobility barriers for so many.

Jeff Cranson: So, yeah, so some of this discussion has been about leveraging this project ultimately to attract more business and create jobs which is, you know, the LEO component of all this. How do you think this helps on that front, with that challenge?

Trevor Pawl: Yeah, so, I mean there's definitely two ways to look at it. I think many look at automation of vehicles as a potential displacer of jobs. It might be globally over time, but I think what this project shows is a commitment by the state, that if we're going to be losing jobs over time, let's create some new ones, new ones that have a track towards greater advancement, whether it's, you know, operating some of these autonomous and electric vehicles, maintaining them, and maintaining the road in a new way. This road is going to be way more complex than the roads that we drive on today in terms of the technology and the hardware. So, what we're going to try to do here is as we're looking at the use cases, or how this road can benefit communities, we're also going to be looking at ways that it can create jobs. That's another conversation that we're going to have from day one. It's not going to be something that we, you know, kick the can down the road on and get into it in year two. This is something we're going to think about right away.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, and I think it's important to point out there that that it was great to have Bill Ford there to show that that Ford is definitely interested in this, and has already invested a great deal in future mobility and what they think the future is going to hold for how we do everything in terms of transportation. So, let's listen to what he had to say.

Bill Ford: We want to design solutions for the way people are going to move, making transportation more convenient and accessible to everyone through smart, connected vehicles, roads, and public transit. The potential that this project holds will help further accelerate this region's transformation because we must build for the world that we're moving into, not the world that we've known. This project is part of a new world, one where Michigan continues to disrupt and lead the world by changing the way people move and help reduce emissions, increase transportation equity, and better connect all of our communities. There's no place in the world more important for transportation's past, present, and future than Detroit and Michigan.

Jeff Cranson: So, Collin, talk about the legislation that was adopted with bipartisan support, and not much gets done with bipartisan support anymore, in 2016, which was really nation leading at the time. Several other states, you know, were very interested in what Michigan did and have talked to us about it and tried to pass their own legislation modeled after that, and how it supported automakers and other OEMs in their efforts to develop the vehicles of the future. I know that your colleagues in your unit worked really hard on that negotiating to get that legislation passed and what it means to sensors on roads and bridges and supporting connectivity. Can you talk about that and how it helped get us to yesterday's announcement?

Collin Castle: Yeah, definitely, so, you know, the legislation in 2016 was really groundbreaking and set the groundwork for EVs in the state of Michigan. It included things like provisions allowing for fully driverless vehicles, you know, the ability, for example, to have OEMs or vehicle manufacturers have their own fleets of vehicles that are automated that they could, you know, operate within the state of Michigan, looking at technologies like automated trucks and truck platooning to make, you know, freight movements more efficient potentially within the state. So, you know, all of that combined over the last several years we've really done a lot of industry interfacing to understand kind of what the needs are from the industry as infrastructure owner-operators, and what things we could be doing more effectively to allow for these technologies to operate safely. So, what we learned over time is that to think that these connected and automated technologies are just going to roll out on our roadways, and we have no role in that is totally not a truthful statement. So, you know, we learned that there are things you can do in the physical infrastructure, like better lane markings and potentially machine-readable signage. We've learned about things like our digital infrastructure, and how mapping our infrastructure and allowing for connectivity to signalize intersections can allow for these technologies to more safely operate. We've learned that if we could do things like coordinate movements of these vehicles, like their speed and how they—curbs, for example, curb management. All of these things ultimately led us to the thought process that, you know, if you combined all of these attributes into a single corridor between, for example, Detroit and Ann Arbor and you bring the vehicles there then they really can be optimized. They can really operate in a safe and efficient manner, and if you can simplify the operating environment you can really realize the full potential of these technologies. All of kind of those data points led us to the idea that we needed to focus on being as innovative with our infrastructure as, you know, the folks who are building the vehicle technologies are on the other side. We can't—I think the term, or the statement, was made yesterday, we can't continue to build old infrastructure for old technologies. We need to be thinking about the future, and I think that's really what, you know, this—what the legislation of the last several years has taught us is that we have a huge role from an infrastructure perspective, and that's what we're doing with this project.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, and, so, that the focus is largely on what can be done with new technology and automated connected vehicles are a huge component of that, but the potential for transit and bus rapid transit and other innovations there are important parts of this too, and Trevor touched on that a little bit. I was especially interested in what Jim Sayer, the director at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, said on a panel following yesterday's announcement about social equity. Let's listen to  Jim right here.

Jim Sayer: To solve the social mobility issues, we've got to solve the access that's beyond the technology. I’m hoping the university can bring solutions that will help expand access jobs, to education, to healthy food, to social services. It's really a partnership. Nobody's going to solve this problem on their own.

Jeff Cranson: So, talk a little bit more about that, Trevor, and what Jim Sayer said and why you think that's that's really important. As you've talked to the Cavnue partners, the folks from sidewalk infrastructure partners, why they think that that matters and how it could enhance options and access for all.

Trevor Pawl: Yeah, so, in practice it means not interrupting current systems that people really rely on, and over time creating a strategy that integrates integrated asset management. That allows for future innovation to enter into existing systems in a way that doesn't destroy the harmonization of what communities have created around their public transit systems, what the state has created to support equitable travel, equitable mobility. So, one of the things that I feel is very important is that we look at what the RTA has done, we look at what SEMCOG has done, even DDOT, what The Ride has done in Ann Arbor, and making sure that that this is an accelerator of some of those key objectives, or key goals, that those plans have, and not something that sits atop it, or a side of it, or is in conflict or tension with it. Again, this is a co-creation process that ideally should add a new a new way to travel, but also enhance the existing ways that so many people rely on today.

Jeff Cranson: So, yeah, that's exactly I think what Jim Sayer was getting at. So, Collin, just to kind of wrap it up here, you know, we talked about this being the beginning of the beginning. It's going to be a while before people see tangible things, but it's also very important for transparency sake that we put a major spotlight on the initial announcement and everything that happens as this progresses so that people know what's going on and why it's going on. What's your, you know, fervent hope as you look to the future, you know, two years from now, five years from now. 

Collin Castle: Yeah, so, two years from now I would hope that we, you know, we work through and we develop, as Trevor had mentioned, you know, we co-create with the state, our local partners, the public, as well as Cavnue, a really excellent plan for how we would implement the corridor. Then, five years from now I would love to see that corridor fully implemented, and services thriving within that corridor. I think this really has a great potential to increase mobility options within southeast Michigan, support the overall regional transit kind of conversation in southeast Michigan, bring all of the potential benefits of these technologies to the forefront, and allow for the public to really get a lot of experience and understanding with the technologies and become more comfortable with them. Five years from now, I’m really hoping that we have a successful deployment, and this could be something that could be used as a replicable model, even, to other areas within the state and throughout the country.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, that's very good. Is there anything you want to add to that, Trevor?

Trevor Pawl: No, I think, Collin, you nailed it. You know, to me, I look now at sort of how we build on this and stitch together this project with all of the other different, interesting, and impactful technology activations and road projects that MDOT's working on, and that other transportation authorities around the state are working on, whether that's, you know, best practices along these corridors, or even, you know, making sure that we're responsible with the data and, frankly, the software side of this is all integrated. I think we have the best department of transportation in the country. This is proof of it, and now we have an opportunity to continue to advance that narrative, so it's been a lot of work getting to this point. I’m definitely happy that we're approaching a weekend, and I look forward to everything that that's coming our way.

Jeff Cranson: Yeah, well, thank you both. Congratulations again and good luck. We'll talk more as this progresses, so thanks.

Both: Thank you, Jeff.

Jeff Cranson: So, to wrap it up we're going to go out with a comment that I think covered things pretty well from the department of transportation standpoint from yesterday's panel discussion, MDOT Director, Paul Ajegba.

Paul Ajegba: And I think for me in five years, I’d like to see a successful project that's woven into the fabric of the community. People kind of get used to seeing these vehicles out there, knowing that it really works and will be hopeful a future of what autonomous vehicles hold.

Jeff Cranson: So, okay, thanks again for listening to this week's edition of Talking Michigan Transportation, and I want to give a special shout out to Randy Debler, at MDOT, who did the sound engineering this week and had to piece together all the audio, so, as always, we really appreciate your help. Thanks.

Narrator: That's a wrap for this edition of Talking Michigan Transportation. Check out show notes and more on Soundcloud, or by subscribing on Apple podcast.