Bad weather, old roads slow Detroit's mobility roll

Analysts say driverless vehicles will be part of a mix in cities such as Detroit, along with mass-transit and micro-mobility options.

Don't expect to catch a ride with a self-driving vehicle fleet in downtown Detroit anytime soon.

It could be several years before the Motor City sees the high-functioning fleets that General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co. and Google parent Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo plan to launch in a handful of cities within the next few years, according to government officials and those working in the industry.

Even though Metro Detroit is a test hub for automakers and technology companies developing the next generation of transportation — and employees of Dan Gilbert-owned companies already can ride a mile-long loop on autonomous shuttles being tested by Ann Arbor start-up May Mobility — several factors make Detroit an unattractive place to launch a robotic vehicle business.

One reason: Metro Detroit doesn't have the dense population of a New York City or San Francisco, experts say, where self-driving fleets would make economic sense. The crumbling roads and aging infrastructure of both Detroit and Michigan add another downside. One more is the weather — current technology has a hard time dealing with fog and snow. 

Rented electric scooters recently began darting over downtown sidewalks and streets.

"That's a big industry problem,"  Mark de la Vergne, Detroit's chief of mobility innovation, said in an interview. "There's some pretty big markets out there with bad weather, so it's not like our weather is unique."

Detroit and other northern U.S. cities likely won't see widespread driverless ride-hailing or delivery services, experts say, until automakers and their high-tech rivals can fine-tune sensors and radar to navigate safely through fog, sleet and snow.

San Francisco may be notoriously foggy, but it's also one of the most populated, congested places in the U.S. — and the closest major city to Silicon Valley. But even San Francisco hasn't been announced as a launch location for the first operating autonomous fleets.

"When I say the technology struggles with dealing with fog today, I speak for an industry," Brian Salesky, CEO of Argo AI, Ford's partner to create autonomous vehicles, said in an interview. "This isn't an Argo-Ford problem. The sensors fundamentally can't penetrate through fog today. It's just a fact. And so hardware is going to have to mature, and hardware timelines are long."

Industry leaders tend to favor fair-weather locations to roll out robotic vehicles: Ford and partner company Argo AI are testing a business model for autonomous vehicles in Miami. GM's Cruise Automation tests in Silicon Valley with its Cruise AV team. Google's Waymo has focused much of its testing in Arizona.

Only Waymo has said officially where its first fleet will operate: Phoenix. Ford and GM have not made plans for their fleets public. All of these companies test to varying degrees in Metro Detroit and other locations with inclement weather. Several companies use the American Center for Mobility test track in Ypsilanti, where they can experiment in real and simulated Michigan weather year-round. Argo tests in Pittsburgh, a hub of robotics expertise tied to Carnegie Mellon University.

But no company has yet managed to get its navigational "lidar" to cut through water particles in the air. Lidar bounces lasers off a car's surroundings to help it "see," but fog, sleet and snow scramble the picture. That means autonomous vehicles would have to be parked during bad weather and wouldn't earn their keep.

 No single mobility solution

 All this doesn't mean that Detroit won't benefit from the research and technology advances that come out of it. Detroit's new mobility solutions just won't be the same as those in other cities.

Detroit and the state of Michigan will harbor dozens of companies as they test autonomous technology in coming years. Ford is seeking tax breaks to locate its autonomous and electric vehicle teams on a new campus in Corktown planned for 2022, where it also plans to do some autonomous vehicle testing.

Sam Abuelsamid, an automotive industry analyst for Chicago-based Navigant Research, said cities with old infrastructure and bad weather like Detroit will have to create more-complex systems that work to alleviate traffic and other things that make it hard to get around.

“There’s no silver bullet,” he said. “[Autonomous vehicles] are part of the mix eventually, but they have to exist alongside micro-mobility and mass-transit options." He added that transportation options — from scooters and ride-hailing  to city buses — can be leveraged more efficiently in an “ecosystem.”

Danny Butler III rides his bike from his job at Quicken Loans to his home in the New Center area after work.

“What we don’t want is just more cars on the road,” he said. “We need something that gives you access to multiple services at a time — you open an app and there’s an Uber, a Lyft and a bike near you, and you need to go five or 10 blocks. You pick what’s fastest or cheapest, or what makes the most sense for you.”

In a September speech before the Midwestern Governors Association, Ford CEO Jim Hackett said that each city represents a complex system in its own right: "No single solution can apply. We think we need to work with every city."

Public officials in Detroit are doing their own evaluations while working with private companies to figure out how to make Detroit's transportation system better.

"This is something where it's not just us completely driving," the city's De la Vergne said. "We're having to work with and react to what's happening in the private sector. We're trying to make it easier for everyone to get around."

City makes transit strides

During De la Vergne's tenure, Detroit has launched multiple 24-hour bus routes. Ride-hailing companies Lyft and Uber have been operating across the region for a few years. Downtown, the new QLine streetcar whisks passengers up and down Woodward. The MoGo bicycle-share program is flourishing, and this summer hundreds of rented electric scooters from Lime and Bird began darting over downtown sidewalks and streets.

The Knight Foundation recently awarded Detroit part of a $5.25 million initiative divided among five cities to survey the community for input on self-driving vehicles and other ways to get around.

Another important aspect is having favorable laws for companies to test and operate in the city. Detroit gets a boost from the state, where Gov. Rick Snyder and other politicians have pushed for legislation favorable to companies testing new transportation modes. Two test facilities — MCity in Ann Arbor and the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti — have received government dollars. 

Kevin Smith, senior adviser for mobility at the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said his organization and the city are working to develop the right network of legislation, businesses and people to complement the 16 automotive companies that have headquarters or technology centers in Michigan, and attract more mobility ventures to the city.

Customers board a Quicken Loans commuter bus on Woodward  near Campus Martius.

"When you bundle all of those things together, you start to create this ecosystem and this fabric that sets the city apart," he said.

The thinking goes that if the companies are testing here, Detroit aims to benefit by default. One of the bigger transportation issues in the city is how people get to and from a bus stop. That's called a "last-mile" transportation issue, which the bike-share and scooter-rental programs aim to help solve.

But, says Abuelsamid, "None of this tech stuff is going to matter if the fundamentals aren’t there. Investments need to first go into core infrastructure. Fix roads, bridges, signs, all of the basics.”

It could take years to get the crumbling infrastructure in Detroit and Michigan up to par for autonomous vehicles, and that's going to take a lot of coordination, Abuelsamid said: "If the basics of infrastructure aren’t there, it’s going to be hard."

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau, @NoraNaughton