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With its purchase of the Michigan Central Station, Ford Motor Co. put Detroit's Corktown neighborhood on the map as an epicenter of the autonomous car revolution. Futurists have sci-fi visions of driverless cars zipping down Michigan Avenue, their sensors negotiating obstacles while smart-city infrastructure helps them communicate with one another.

That’s the future. But until then, Robbie Buhl wants to make Corktown the epicenter of hands-on driving.

The 55-year-old Detroit native and ex-IndyCar driver has located his Teen Street Skills program and rally race-team right next to the train station. Driving doesn’t get much more hands-on than racing – and until autonomous cars deliver on their promise to save lives, Buhl wants to make sure young drivers are saving themselves.

“Look at stats for 16- to 17-year-olds, the number one killer in the country is car accidents,” says Buhl, who has 78 IndyCar races under his belt – nine of them at the Indy 500. “That number is creeping up even though number of young drivers in the market place is going down.”

Buhl’s program is similar to other programs around the country – ex-Corvette driver Andy Pilgrim’s Traffic Safety Education Foundation at Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Honda Teen Defensive Driving School at Mid-Ohio, for example – in its efforts to teach teens safe driving skills.

But where these programs are generally run at race tracks in rural areas, Buhl is locating his school in the heart of Detroit on a 2.5-acre parking lot next to Ford's train depot. He's recruiting young people from around Metro Detroit to show off Detroit’s revitalization and brand his Corktown headquarters as “Detroit’s race team.”

“Three years ago we bought the Factory,” said Buhl referring to two red brick buildings across the street from the old Tiger stadium on Michigan Avenue that date back to 1907 and once housed the Chicago Hosiery and Detroit-Alaska Knitting Mills.

“People thought we were crazy, (but it’s) amazing what’s happened to Detroit and Corktown in the last three years. It’s fun to bring people down here – we have kids coming down from Utica schools, Troy schools, Grosse Pointe schools.”

Except for the instructor sitting in the right seat, Teen Street Skills has nothing in common with the average driver’s education program.

Rather than nerve-wracking drives at the speed limit followed by sweaty-palm parallel parking drills, the Buhl program encourages teens to push cars to the limit to simulate panic driving situations they'll encounter in the real world.

At one station, teens floor a Ford Focus toward a wall of pylons, then slam on the brakes – the anti-lock pedal pulsing — and turn the wheel to simulate an avoidance maneuver. The resulting g-loads and squalling tires are essential to helping new drivers understand vehicle dynamics.

“They come away with more confidence and more awareness,” says Buhl. “When they have that panic situation on the road, it’s going to help them. We’re putting them in awkward situations.”

At another driving station, the kids jump behind the wheel of Ford Fusions equipped with “drift lifts” that lighten the rear suspension, inducing instant oversteer in a turn. The young drivers learn to slide the car through corners, modulating steering and throttle to keep the car straight. It’s fun – and instructive.

Like most attendees, Sam Russell, 16, of Grosse Pointe Farms, came to Buhl’s program with the encouragement of his parents.

“I’m really having fun learning about how the car reacts,” he said between sessions on a Saturday morning. “This will help make me a better driver in the long run. I drive every day to school and this school will help me analyze situations.”

One of those situations includes time with a police officer who explains to them how to handle getting pulled over: What to say. What not to say.

Above all, Buhl wants his students to understand the importance of keeping their eyes on the road to deal with sudden situations.

“This is all about the eyes – if you’re looking down at a text or looking to play Spotify, the average text is 5 seconds — five sedans at 60 mph is over the length of a football field. A lot can happen,” says Buhl. “We don’t want to scare kids. At driver’s ed they use the crashed car videos and all that. But that’s not working.”

Buhl puts on his program for free; he credits donors and sponsors who finance his program. One of those sponsors is Ford, which provides the Focus compact, Fusion sedans and Escape SUVs for the program.

There’s not a self-driver among them. For now, in the shadow of Ford’s future autonomous headquarters, Robbie Buhl wants to make sure drivers have both hands on the wheel.

Details are at www.teenstreetskills.org.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

 

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