- Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formalized the launch of an Office of Future Mobility and Electrification (OFME) last week to support transportation innovation efforts already underway in cities across the state. Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl told Smart Cities Dive the office will look to the likes of Detroit, Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor for inspiration in keeping Michigan at the forefront of new mobility advances.
- OFME will focus on a series of objectives, including expanding the state's smart infrastructure for autonomous vehicles (AVs); accelerating electric vehicle (EV) adoption; preparing the workforce for the evolution of the mobility sector; and increasing tech investment in the mobility space. Pawl said those objectives are inspired by a series of trends, particularly around industry disruption.
- Pawl said the efforts of Detroit's Chief of Mobility Innovation Mark de la Vergne and his peers in other cities have made for good local-level partners, and have provided a solid framework for what can be done at the state level. "They're different titles, but there's always that one person that focuses on things like smart parking or charging stations," Pawl said. "[It] could just be a confluence of really great personalities and people that want to get it done, or maybe there's enough work to go around, but everyone works really well together."
City-level innovation has been crucial in Michigan as it looks to advance a new transportation future. Detroit has been at the forefront, with initiatives like the "World's Smartest Intersection," the promise of a new innovation campus from the University of Michigan, and the influx of technology and mobility companies around Michigan Central Station. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor has benefited from a close relationship with the University of Michigan and its MCity test lab, while Grand Rapids has tested autonomous shuttles.
The state is a testbed for national-level initiatives, too. The American Center for Mobility (ACM) in Ypsilanti was once the site of an effort to bolster warplane production during World War II, and is now one of a small handful of AV proving grounds approved for testing and research by the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT).
On the state level, Pawl said OFME will focus on bringing together 17 different departments that have a role in mobility, as well as more than 135 different boards, commissions and councils. That will include the usual suspects like the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), as well as groups like the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD), which can use learnings from AV research in smart farming.
Pawl said OFME will take a "tree ring approach" to synchronizing department priorities, by slowly building relationships with certain departments before adding more. "Over time, I think you build out enough of a network, and if you can get a feedback loop and a regular cadence for communication in there and then get it properly resourced, there's a way to do this right," Pawl said.
Pawl said while cities in Michigan have led the way in mobility innovation, it will be critical to ensure that rural areas also get to benefit from new initiatives and pilot programs born of OFME's efforts. That has already occurred through statewide innovation challenges like MDOT's $8 Million Michigan Mobility Challenge in 2018, through which 13 programs in urban and rural communities were granted funding to address mobility challenges that impact the elderly and persons with disabilities.
"It's easy to get caught up on the shiny object, the really cool new tech, the algorithm, the artificial intelligence (AI)," Pawl said. "But mobility is also putting a divider between a bus driver and a passenger during COVID-19. It's helping people be safer and it's helping them move … That's how we look at it: it's not just about high tech. Low tech can be even more impactful."
While Michigan has a history and a reputation as America's home of automobile production, Pawl said it will be critical for state leaders to chart a more multimodal future, even as work on AVs, EVs and smart infrastructure intensifies.
"To use a sports analogy, you're not going to advance very far in the playoffs if you only run the ball," he said. "We're very good at self-driving vehicles. We're very good at smart infrastructure. But how do we raise our game to compete in ground drones, aerial drones and whatever else comes our way?"