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The evolution from Motor City to Mobility City

Dave Pinter
Cars like this Chevy Bolt could soon be driving themselves around the streets of Detroit.

For the last century, almost since the day Henry Ford’s first assembly line started rolling in 1913, Detroit has been known as the Motor City. It was a regional point of pride that cars made in Michigan could be found zipping down roadways in every U.S. state and across the globe.

That image has been battered in recent decades as factories have been shuttered and work forces trimmed.

But today, a new vision is emerging, one in which Detroit specializes not only in building cars, but in all things transportation. That includes new technologies like autonomous vehicles, but it also means connecting those technologies to services like public transportation and bike shares.

In short, that new vision includes everything that moves people, goods or information from point A to point B. Call it the “Mobility City.”

Of course, Detroit is not the only place working to become a leader in 21st century transportation networks. Pittsburgh, for example, recently launched a partnership with the ride-sharing company Uber, and now has autonomous vehicles crawling its streets. In Silicon Valley, companies like Google and Tesla have been advancing their own vision of mobility.

But according to Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, Detroit has a number of advantages that those cities simply cannot match.

“There’s more automotive and connective vehicle research being done here than anywhere in the world,” he said. “But we have to leverage all that for our future.”

Efforts to do so are already underway. There are much-publicized projects like Mcity and the American Center for Mobility, two multi-million dollar autonomous vehicle testing facilities planned for the region. Equally important are many smaller developments that have not generated headlines.

Jean Redfield is the CEO of the Detroit-based non-profit NextEnergy. She said Michigan’s culture emphasizes accomplishments over possibilities, which may obscure some of the work already being done.

“We do have mobility pilots active in the city. They’re a little below-the-radar compared to the big splashy Uber announcements in places like Pittsburgh,” she said.

One development that did make headlines: The recent passage in Lansing of legislation that will ease development and testing of autonomous vehicles on Michigan roads. One legislator likened the state’s efforts to become a mobility leader to the 20th-century space race.

Redfield sees some truth in that analogy. She thinks that, if anything, mobility presents an even more complex problem than the moonshot.

“The challenge is, it’s not a single-minded focus,” she said. “The space race was ‘land on the moon.’  The connected-technologies future is a whole ecosystem of new technologies, new business models, and new players coming in and working with established players in new and different ways. So it’s as aggressive as the space race, and even harder to go after.”

Yet, despite those challenges, both Redfield and Stevens are optimistic that Detroit will emerge as the mobility leader. Part of the reason for that optimism? Detroit has already reshaped the transportation world once before.

“We put the world on wheels, so why not put the world into an autonomous vehicle?” Stevens said. “And I think that’s what we’re going to do.”

Listen to our full conversation with Glenn Stevens and Jean Redfield above.

This segment originally aired on Nov. 16, 2016.

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