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Published in Economic Development
May Mobility operated an autonomous shuttle along the DASH route in cooperation with The Rapid, the city of Grand Rapids, Planet M and other partners. May Mobility operated an autonomous shuttle along the DASH route in cooperation with The Rapid, the city of Grand Rapids, Planet M and other partners. COURTESY PHOTO

Transportation poised for wild ride over next decade

BY Sunday, August 02, 2020 06:10pm

The coming decade is expected to bring a seismic shift to the transportation sector, filled with more electric and autonomous vehicles, technology-connected roads and fierce competition to build the components that support it all. 

Trevor Pawl’s job is to make sure Michigan doesn’t fall behind. 

Pawl, who was appointed as the state’s chief mobility officer last month by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will lead the newly created Office of Future Mobility and Electrification. His top priorities include attracting mobility investment and talent, helping deploy the “roads of the future” and other infrastructure to support autonomous and electric vehicles, and “making sure we bolster Michigan’s mobility manufacturing core.”

It’s a tall order from Whitmer, but necessary to protect Michigan’s reputation as an automotive capital as vehicles increasingly rely on software, state officials say.

“Something concerted needs to be done,” Pawl told MiBiz. “Other industries are converging on the future of transportation.”

Indeed, some reports show electric vehicle sales globally will outpace internal combustion models by 2030, while automakers have announced $300 billion in EV models and charging investments. Software is expected to represent about 50 percent of a vehicle’s value by 2030, up from 35 percent now, Pawl said. Meanwhile, Pawl cited a recent forecast from McKinsey & Co. predicting Michigan’s share of electric vehicle manufacturing to drop slightly by 2025.

“I think we need to be creative as a state about how to work with these emerging electric vehicle companies,” Pawl said, including lifting regulations and offering incentives for companies that locate here. 

At this point, though, the advanced transportation sector is in the nascent stage of pilot programs — such as an autonomous shuttle service in downtown Grand Rapids — and product announcements. 

The pandemic also has slowed some of these efforts. A partnership between May Mobility Inc., the city of Grand Rapids, PlanetM and others sidelined the city’s autonomous vehicle shuttle project on March 16. The shuttle service is expected to resume in late August or early September.

May Mobility Director of Business Development Tara Lanigan said prior to the pandemic shutdowns, ridership was “quite high” and surveys showed it supplemented existing bus services from The Rapid

The project’s focus has since shifted. Ridership is “no longer going to be a success metric” as the pandemic presses on. Also, May Mobility has been redesigning vehicles to help stop the spread of COVID-19 among passengers.

“One of the biggest priorities is keeping shared mobility a priority and working around COVID to keep that as our roadmap,” Lanigan said.

Looking beyond the nascent stages, Pawl sees a safer future for drivers when AI can help reduce the number of fatal crashes in Michigan, which now are nearly entirely due to human error.

He also envisions more AI-powered shipping vehicles, including “last-mile” delivery services via drones.

“Shipping innovations are going to change smart infrastructure, and smart infrastructure will change economies,” Pawl said. The shift has potential to significantly reduce logistics costs, by some estimates near 50 percent by 2030.

“I feel like that’s where the industry’s going,” he said. “Michigan needs to head there as well.”

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