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Michigan Automakers Pave Way for City of Tomorrow

Connectivity, ride-sharing and electrification address challenges in dense urban areas

By James Amend

The city of tomorrow, where public, private and shared mobility services are interconnected to more efficiently and sustainably move people and goods, lies years down the road, but Detroit automakers already are paving the way.

“It is a time of tremendous change,” said Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions at Ford Motor Company.

Advancements in autonomous and electric vehicles are occurring every day as the industry transforms from traditional automaker to personal mobility provider. Meanwhile, ride-hailing and car-sharing services are rapidly expanding and very shortly cars will communicate with each other and a city’s infrastructure. At the same time, however, the global population is skyrocketing, especially in urban areas  already suffocating under transportation congestion.

Robinson’s group is a one-of-a-kind unit within the industry tasked with addressing urban-environment issues and developing mobility solutions for congested cities. The group has delivered numerous innovations, although a key element of its early work has been reaching out to city leaders around the world to get a firsthand look at the mobility challenges facing urban centers.

“We can’t build more streets,” Robinson said. “So how do we move more people and more goods? The way to do that is greater orchestration.”

In New York, for example, traffic speed in Manhattan’s midtown area has fallen 20 percent in the last 10 years to 4.7 mph. And despite the litany of public transit options, vehicle ownership in outer boroughs such as Brooklyn remain a relatively robust 40 percent.

Ford’s Chariot startup was an early answer for New York. The on-demand ride-sharing service employs Ford Transit vans and shuttles up to 14 passengers along commuter routes. Vans take up the footprint of oneand-a-half vehicles and complement existing public transit routes as a first- and lastmile option for commuters. The company crowdsources rider data, too, so Chariot can service the right places at the right time.

“Microtransit fits into an industry middle ground between high-quality public transit and driving yourself, or walking,” Robinson said. “It enhances peoples’ ability to get around, brings efficiency with the shared piece and is responsive to demand.”

Chariot has expanded into eight other cities, including San Francisco, Austin and Seattle. Ford also recently began a public bicycle sharing service in collaboration with San Francisco’s transit authority. Ford GoBike launched in 2013 with 700 bikes available across 70 stations. Later this year, the automaker expects to provide 7,000 bikes.

Ford GoDrive is another experiment. It is a one-way car-sharing service in London, England. Parking is guaranteed and riders pay as they go, reserving and accessing cars with a smartphone app.


General Motors is working on several initiatives, including its Maven car-sharing unit. Maven offers GM cars and trucks for hourly, daily and weekly use targeting everyday people, residential communities, commercial entities, and the gig economy, an exploding network of drivers providing mobility services in urban areas under short-term contracts.

Launched in New York and Ann Arbor just over 18 months ago, Maven has expanded into nearly every major U.S. metropolitan market with 10,000 vehicles having logged 170 million miles.

Peter Kosak, executive director of Urban Mobility at GM, said Maven Gig is an example of how new forms of mobility satisfy changing consumer demands, generate jobs, and provide transportation to underserved populations. And with thousands of units of the Chevrolet Bolt, Maven Gig is slashing emissions and giving civic leaders critical insight to building future electric vehicle charging stations.
“The next step would be autonomous vehicles and a link to mass transit,” Kosak said.

Kosak said autonomous electric vehicles working in concert with local transit authorities could make a city more sustainable by reducing public transport costs, as well as providing rides and delivery services to urban areas outside of bus and rail routes.

“Now we can get our elderly to the doctor. We can deliver food. We can get our kids to school,” he said. “It is a powerful concept.”


Fiat Chrysler (FCA US LLC) also is driving the industry toward an autonomous future. The automaker’s Chrysler Pacifica minivan is being used by Google’s driverless car unit, Waymo. Testing of 600 cars is underway in California and Waymo was expected to expand its validation work into Southeast Michigan in late 2017.

The automaker also is collaborating with Germany’s BMW, chipmaker Intel, and Mobileye, an Israeli automotive vision expert, on self-driving technology. FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne called the collaboration vital to advancing driverless cars by sharing technologies and creating greater scale to drive down cost for users.

FCA also adopted Google’s powerful Android operating system to heighten the connectivity potential of its latestgeneration UConnect infotainment system. The system would potentially string together the growing universe of Android-powered devices and systems.

“(The) collaboration with Google has been an extremely beneficial opportunity for both companies to explore how in-vehicle infotainment and connectivity technology continues to evolve, and what it takes to meet consumers’ increasing desire for innovation of information with minimal distraction,” said Chris Barman, head of electrical engineering at FCA.


Among the projects at Toyota Motor North America in Ann Arbor is a broad research initiative into how drivers interact with advanced vehicle technologies to ensure future cars safely interact within their environments.

Five separate projects with national universities including the University of Michigan focus on societal acceptance and will generate data-driven insights into the use of future vehicle technologies, such as automated systems.

While much work lies ahead to fully integrate the emerging modes of transportation with traditional ones and public transit, industry leaders agree an environment where they have historically operated independently is no longer sustainable.

“The period we are in promises to unlock as much value and impact lifestyles and landscapes as the automobile did in the very beginning,” GM’s Kosak said. “It is going to be transformative.” James Amend is a senior editor at WardsAuto in Southfield.