September – October 2016 Commentary

transportation illustration
Illustration by James Yang

Transportation – Detroit Mobility Park

As a light rail system along Woodward Avenue in Detroit prepares to begin service next year, the big winners will be the growing number of city residents along the 3.3-mile route, as well as visitors attending sporting events, restaurants, or cultural performances. Find a quicker way to connect point A with point B, and business will follow.

September October 2016 commentary statistics

The rail line is just a small step in the future of mobility, an industry that U.S. automotive manufacturers and suppliers are eager to lead. Facing competition from Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle, and other tech-centric regions in the development of connected vehicles, car- and ride-sharing services, intelligent infrastructure systems, and logistical advances in the transportation sector, the domestic auto industry needs to step on the gas or risk being left behind.

Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Quicken Loans Inc. in Detroit, has proposed the Big Three automakers and their suppliers support the development of a tech-laden ecosystem in the central city. The urban enclave would be, in Gilbert’s assessment, the car tech capital of the world.

But ground vehicles are just one part of the overall transportation industry. There’s also aircraft, waterways, and rail.

The challenge of connecting any number of mobility offerings with digital solutions is immense, especially when industries are so segmented. Today, the automotive companies rarely work with aircraft manufacturers — but future mobility will include large unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, that can transport cargo containers and vehicles from one location to another.

Such a platform would support the major modes of transportation, as aerial vehicles can deliver people and products more efficiently to airports, ships, railcars, and roads. What’s more, drones large and small, equipped with vertical takeoff and landing systems, don’t require a large area to sequence arrival and delivery needs.

In addition to establishing an area in downtown Detroit for a car tech district, business leaders, civic organizations, and planners need to embrace the entire mobility platform. Ground and aerial vehicles will need a common communication system to drive the next wave of mobility, so why not develop it in Detroit?

We have been very clear that it isn’t the right time to significantly expand capacity. Too much capacity would add cost, erode our pricing power, lead to lower-margin sales, and make us less efficient when sales moderate.

— Alan Batey, President, GM North America

Talent and resources are already available in the region. What’s missing is a place where future mobility platforms can be tested in one location to drive innovation and efficiency. Fontinalis Partners, a venture capital firm in Detroit, is investing in next-generation mobility systems, as is Detroit Aircraft Corp., which designs, builds, and distributes drones.

By combining their expertise with similar businesses, automakers, suppliers, and others at the emerging Detroit Mobility Park at Detroit City Airport, the development of a common communication platform for ground and aerial vehicles would get a big boost. Areas could be segmented so research is protected before entrepreneurs and established enterprises partner to reach the global marketplace. From there, the sky’s the limit. 

Education – A Free Ride?

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed a 10-year, $350-million initiative to help lower- and middle-class students attend or finish college. She has provided few details on how to pay for it, however, other than saying that participating states will have to fund as much as one-third of the costs.

The plan would offer free tuition at in-state public colleges and universities to students in families that earn $85,000 a year or less, with the ceiling rising to $125,000 by 2021. While her campaign says the proposal would cover more than 80 percent of families, the plan would first need to be approved by Congress.

To accomplish this feat, she says she will sign an “immediate” executive action so that students who have taken out college loans can sign up for income-based repayment plans. In addition, they can take advantage of ways to reduce interest payments and fees.

Why the three-month moratorium is needed is unclear. While the goal of providing a college education to more people is worthy, there are plenty of public and private sector loan offerings, along with scholarships and grants, that give students the opportunity to attend a college or a university. Offering tuition for free comes with a price. Taxpayers will be asked to pay more so that a select few can avoid working a full- or a part-time job to support their college education. That’s not free at all. 

Energy – Pipeline Politics

The safest, cleanest, and most efficient method of transferring oil, fuel, and natural gas is via pipelines. From the source to the refinery, pipelines preclude oil and other fuels from being transported by large trucks or railcars. But pipelines are coming under attack because they don’t fit the narrative of the Obama administration and so-called green organizations when it comes to climate change and clean energy.

In July, the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands and Earth First organized a demonstration on the lawn of Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette’s home in Midland to protest the aging Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac. The demonstrators, who hung signs from his trees and left fake headstones on the lawn, said they wanted the pipelines shut down for fear they will rupture.

If it’s oil the protest groups want to do away with, that’s fine. But they should walk the walk if they truly believe in their cause. Rather than using fuel to get back and forth from work, shop for food and clothes, and attend protests, members of green organizations should use their feet or bicycles to complete such tasks. Unless they’re willing to make sacrifices in their pursuit of eliminating oil as an energy source, people won’t believe in their cause.

The same goes for the Obama administration and its decision to prohibit the Keystone Pipeline from being built because it would jeopardize the nation’s standing as the leading country battling climate change (presumably). Never mind someone else will refine the oil, and utilize trucks and trains to transport it. Before violating laws to forward their interests, green activists should stop using oil, gas, and electricity if others are to take them seriously.  

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