Detroit-to-Ann Arbor self-driving vehicle corridor aims for national leadership
Detroit — Michigan is angling to build a first-in-the-nation connected and autonomous vehicle corridor in the state's southeast corner, the latest bid to ensure the region remains the epicenter of an auto industry moving rapidly into a technology-driven future.
Local and state government officials, members of Michigan's congressional delegation, Ford Motor Co. executives and project developer Cavnue confirmed plans Thursday for a roadway that would stretch from downtown Detroit to Ann Arbor. Along the way, it would connect to such key milestones as the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and would parallel parts of Interstate 94 to Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
The project would be another step toward southeast Michigan staking its claim as a burgeoning hub of connected and autonomous vehicle technology development in the United States. And, the thinking goes, it would be a visible tool to attract next-generation talent and help revise the region's narrative of decline.
"We want to make it very clear: Michigan is the undisputed leader in the nation's automotive landscape," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. "Whether that is building cars, improving infrastructure or creating an ecosystem to solve the biggest challenges in future mobility."
Officials touted the project as the next chapter in Michigan's long history of leading innovation in the auto industry — and as a promise kept by Ford when it announced two years ago that it would transform Michigan Central Depot into a hub focused on the technologies driving the auto industry of the future. They also emphasized the potential for self-driving technology to make transit more accessible and equitable.
"Just because we have (COVID-19), China is not stopping. India is not stopping. Western Europe is not stopping," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn. "And today we're telling you, we're not stopping."
Detroit's leading role in the auto industry has been doubted in recent years, Mayor Mike Duggan acknowledged: "Five years ago, the conventional wisdom was, the future of the auto industry was going to Silicon Valley."
That's changed, he said, citing recent investments here in electric and autonomous vehicle development by Google self-driving affiliate Waymo LLC, by Ford, by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and by General Motors Co.
About six years ago, business and elected leaders in the state realized they needed to craft a plan to combat the Silicon Valley vs. Detroit perception, recalled Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto and the Detroit Regional Chamber’s vice president of automotive and mobility initiatives: "We all collectively said, 'Not if we have anything to do with it. We built this industry over a century, and it's been our lifeblood.'"
The corridor project is the latest result of that work, he said, and is "extremely significant." To lead the way in next-generation mobility development, "you have to have the public-private partnerships focused on execution."
The project is being led by Cavnue, a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, an affiliate of Google parent Alphabet Inc. SIP "builds, owns, operates and invests in both advanced infrastructure projects and technology companies with innovations that enable and apply to those projects," according to its website.
Cavnue, which was selected by the state following a competitive bidding process, would provide up-front financing and would then seek to recoup its investment under a revenue-sharing structure.
The company is partnering with Ford and the Michigan Department of Transportation to explore infrastructure and financing challenges to build the roadway and leverage the region's engineering prowess. Other partners include the American Center for Mobility and the University of Michigan.
Along with Ford, General Motors Co., Argo AI, Arrival, BMW AG, Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp., TuSimple and Waymo LLC will comprise an advisory committee to help develop standards that don't favor one automaker over another. Instead, they'll set uniform rules to help speed development and adoption of the technology.
An exact route has yet to be determined. Yet initial plans center around Michigan Avenue and I-94. Whether that route is possible, and how it would be executed, rank among the many questions project leaders will seek to answer during the project's first phase. A feasibility study may take up to two years.
The roadway would be publicly accessible and could feature both public transit and shared mobility options. It will be called the "Michigan Connected Corridor," officials confirmed, sharpening a vision Ford shared when it acquired the historic train station two years ago.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Ford is in the middle of a $750 million renovation of the Michigan Central Depot and surrounding buildings in the Corktown neighborhood, part of a bid to transform 1.2 million square feet of space into an "innovation hub" with some 5,000 employees that the Blue Oval considers vital to attracting tech-savvy talent to the Dearborn automaker.
The next step toward realizing Michigan's connected and autonomous vehicle dovetails with Bill Ford's push to create Detroit's own version of Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road: startups and tech partners burrowing into offices in a renovated station tower, traditional suppliers angling to tap the creative vibe, and developers working with the Corktown community to shape a new version of itself.
Ford's Corktown campus will be used to test mobility concepts, and "serves as the fulcrum for the company’s push into an autonomous and electrified world," according to the automaker. When the plans for the campus were announced two years ago, Bill Ford spelled out his vision for a connected corridor, saying Ford would test the technologies it develops in Corktown.
"It's not just the restoration of this great building," he said Thursday. "It's about how this innovation district will serve as an accelerator. We'll make sure Detroit leads in the next revolution of transportation."