July – August 2021 Commentary

An illustration of satellites and plans orbiting earth
Illustration by James Yang

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and procedure. The process is its own reward.”
— Amelia Earhart, Aviation Pioneer

Transportation – Wheels Up

As Michigan strives to advance its standing as a mobility capital for ground and aerial vehicles, there’s a larger opportunity in developing, testing, and implementing the next generation of integrated wireless communications systems for homes, offices, vehicles, aircraft, and infrastructure. While most consumers are familiar with 5G — the next generation of cellular technology — it’s one piece of an overall portal needed to accelerate the exchange of vehicle, traffic, weather, and personal data.

The road to the future, though, has its twists and turns. The Federal Communications Commission ruled late last year that part of the safety spectrum reserved for the transportation industry be allocated to unlicensed private usage. The ruling gave a boost to the mobile phone industry, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of limiting the integration of other platforms like Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). 

Because no one communication or broadcast system solves every challenge in connecting cars, trucks, aircraft, and satellites on or above the road, redundancy is required. The FCC’s decision, however, shouldn’t be taken as an outright victory for cellular. DSRC is a more robust system, offers untold potential by digitally upgrading conventional home and office Wi-Fi systems, and is ultimately safer, given there are few latency issues.

Few people, for example, would entrust control of their vehicle to a cellular network alone. Consider how cellphones can suddenly, and without warning, have connectivity problems, fail to download crucial data, or develop synchronization issues. What’s more, would anyone feel confident the private sector would always put consumers first in an increasingly dynamic industry? Government entities are much better suited to legislate technology that accounts for the greatest levels of protection.

In fact, in the race to provide a V2X (vehicle-to-everything) platform, where ground and aerial vehicles communicate with moving and parked cars, aircraft, traffic signals, pedestrians, retail stores, restaurants, and numerous other objects, cellular communication systems need assistance to operate in the brave, new world of advanced safety and autonomous vehicles.

In most instances, cellphones provide real-time data. But given latency issues and the inability to provide universal coverage — a jogger may leave his or her cellphone at home — more and more vehicles are equipped with LIDAR systems that broadcast laser signals to determine the location of people, animals, vehicles, and other objects and conditions.

The path to mobility supremacy won’t come from just designing, building, and distributing the most advanced cars and trucks. The real bonanza comes from driving revenue from a communication portal that will safely control ground and aerial operations, provide in-vehicle services, and help businesses become more profitable and efficient.

Working together, the business sector, along with academic and governmental organizations, must strive to develop and operate the most advanced vehicle communications network — meshing ground, aerial, and low-earth-orbit technology — and license it. One path forward is a public-private collaboration like 5G Space-Enabled Communications for Advanced Mobility in Sterling Heights, which serves to organize and seize upon vast growth opportunities in the transportation, commercial, and technology sectors.

Batteries – Child Labor Woes

Electric vehicles may seem like a clean, green panacea in comparison to cars and trucks powered by internal combustion engines, but a new analysis by Amnesty International shows child labor is being used to extract rare metals used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. A key component of many such EV batteries used by multiple automakers is cobalt, and 50 percent of the world’s supply of the mineral comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to Green Tech Media.

The Congo government reports 20 percent of its annual cobalt output is from unregulated mines, and Amnesty International estimates more than 40,000 children are working at the illegal operations.  While industry players and many in the media often claim EVs emit “zero emissions,” they too often fail to tell the whole story of what it takes to produce lithium-ion batteries. Cobalt extraction requires smelting, which emits harmful sulfur oxide. In addition, breathing in cobalt dust can cause hard metal lung disease, which may lead to asthma or death.

In one incident, a child reported to Amnesty International that he would “spend 24 hours down in the tunnels. I arrived in the morning and would leave the following morning.” In addition, the extraction of lithium requires large amounts of water. It’s another troubling storyline of EV battery production that should be shared with consumers as they mull the purchase of so-called “clean” vehicles powered by lithium batteries.

Residential – Inclusive Neighborhoods

In late May, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Detroit was one of the recipients of its Choice Neighborhoods grant program, which will enable the city to erect more than 500 new units of affordable housing in Corktown, where Ford Motor Co. is building a $740-million mobility campus.

The $30-million grant will help leverage $200 million among private and public funds that will be invested in 840 new units of housing in Corktown over the next six years. One project entails building a 120-unit midrise residential development on what was left field of the former Tiger Stadium (48 of the units will be affordable housing).

The project serves as a harbinger for other urban communities around Michigan and the country; at least 60 percent of the new residences in Corktown (504 units) will be set aside as affordable housing units. As such, other cities in the region and state should follow the Motor City’s lead in making their communities more inclusive.

As planners strive to improve their downtown districts and neighborhoods, it’s important to recognize that, too often, little progress is made in melding low-income residences within the existing urban fabric. While high property values can be an impediment to offering affordable housing in some communities, market conditions shouldn’t preclude the private and public sectors from working closely together to find solutions for integrating residential areas.