Building the world’s first connected corridor for autonomous vehicles won’t be easy. A blueprint doesn’t exist for installing high-speed fiber cables, sensors, and communication platforms along Michigan Avenue (and a small stretch of Washtenaw Avenue) between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor, in addition to linking the corridor to public destinations like Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus.
What’s more, latency interference compounds the challenge. At the outset, the vision calls for one dedicated interior lane for both the east and west side of Michigan Avenue. Those two lanes will need barriers at first, to separate autonomous from general traffic including pedestrians.
Special crosswalks will be needed, traffic lights must be coordinated, and all manner of hardware and software are required to connect GPS satellites, cellular arrays, Wi-Fi systems, sensors, and underground fiber cables. Latency interference also references the unpredictable nature of surface traffic, as humans and animals like dogs, cats, and squirrels running in the roadway can be inconsistent in their movements.
Developing a connected ground mobility system is, in many ways, much harder than providing for aircraft like unmanned aerial vehicles that in the future will serve as taxis and cargo haulers, as there are fewer things in the air to deal with than on the ground.
Lest anyone doubt the viability of developing aerial vehicles, and the need to connect future ground and aerial transportation systems over a single communication platform, consider recent remarks by Mary Barra, chairman and CEO of General Motors Corp. in Detroit.
In September, she referenced the evolving air taxi market at an RBC Capital Markets virtual conference. “We believe strongly in our EV future, and not just for vehicles,” Barra said. “The strength and flexibility of our Ultium battery systems open doors for many use cases, including aerial mobility, which represents a natural next step in a zero-emissions vision.”
But first things first. The complexity of developing a high-tech corridor along some 34 miles of Michigan Avenue, or U.S. Route 12, and six miles of Washtenaw Avenue (M-17) from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor — as well as connector arteries so riders inside a future autonomous shuttle can reach Detroit Metro Airport — must be solved before adding a communication platform that will integrate ground and aerial vehicles.
To an ambitious region like metro Detroit, where French settlers in 1701 laid the foundation for what would become the epicenter of the global automotive industry, the development of a dedicated digital thoroughfare, or tech track, that could be replicated around the world is the holy grail of a new industry, opening a vast consumer and business marketplace that drives revenue from connected transit routes, charging stations, e-commerce platforms, smart devices, and more.
They were impressed that all of us at the state and local level were working together with industry and academia. And if you can write a playbook in Detroit and Michigan for autonomous and connected roads, you can replicate it anywhere in the world.
— Trevor Pawl
Before peering into the brave, new world of connectivity, the groundwork required to cement Detroit’s standing as the mobility capital of the world began on a summer day in 2018 when Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. in Dearborn, announced from a stage in front of the abandoned Michigan Central Station west of downtown Detroit that the storied automaker had acquired the iconic monolith. He also vowed the company would return to the city where his great-grandfather, Henry Ford, launched the industrial powerhouse in 1903.
“In my almost 40 years at Ford, rarely have I been as excited as I am about this announcement today,” he told a crowd of some 5,000 people — including employees, retirees, Ford family members, guests, media, civic leaders, and community members — gathered in front of the train station. “Michigan Central Station is a place that in many ways tells the story of Detroit over the past century.
“We at Ford want to help write the next chapter, working together in Corktown (and surrounding neighborhoods) with the best startups, the smartest talent, and the thinkers, engineers, and problem-solvers who see things differently — all to shape the future of mobility and transportation.”
That Detroit is protecting and expanding on its industrial heritage, which five years ago saw its standing as the world’s leading manufacturing hub of automakers, suppliers, and tool-and-die shops threatened by outside forces, is telling in an age where hardware and software advances had seemingly been ceded to Silicon Valley. But that was before tech giants like Apple, Google, and Microsoft actually started down the road of building hyperconnected cars and trucks at mass scale.
Apart from Tesla, which actually didn’t start out as a traditional tech company, no one from the Palo Alto region of California or the hip enclaves of Seattle has come forward with one or several vehicles that offer all of the latest technological innovations while meeting stringent federal regulations for safety and reliability. Google, in fact, via its Waymo division, turned to FCA North America in Auburn Hills to package all of its autonomous technology into Chrysler Pacifica minivans — the retrofitting is being done in Detroit at a site near one of the world’s largest auto suppliers, American Axle and Manufacturing Inc.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik, who participated in the Forbes Under 30 Summit event in Detroit last October, envisioned autonomous vehicles as “opening up new frontiers for ride-hailing, commercial delivery, and personal-use vehicles around the world.”
To that end, Waymo is testing driverless technology in places like Phoenix. Closer to home, Ford has been operating autonomous vehicles (with a physical driver and passenger inside) around Michigan Central Station and up and down Michigan Avenue for more than a year.
Apart from Ford, additional research is being conducted on closed test tracks, either at various OEM sites, the American Center for Mobility next to Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti Township, or Mcity, the 32-acre dedicated mock city and proving ground for autonomous vehicles located on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Pulling all of those resources together, and connecting them through a first-of-its-kind corridor for connected and autonomous vehicles, has been a long-term goal of industry, government, and academia. Those efforts bore fruit in August when the State of Michigan, along with several businesses, announced a dedicated tech track as a way to both improve transportation for communities in southeast Michigan across all income brackets and set a template to expand the network to other cities and nations around the world.
To jump-start the effort, the state selected Cavnue, a subsidiary of New York-based Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (itself tied to Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google), to serve as master developer of the project. The public-private partnership will explore the opportunity and viability of the project by working with state and local partners, stakeholders, and communities.
Cavnue will also work with the Michigan Department of Transportation, Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, and industry and local project partners through phase one of the effort, which is expected to last about two years (concluding in the second half of 2022).
Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, says when the state issued an RFP for the project in April, it was looking for “the best of the best” in future road design, the creation of financial models, the integration of multiple communication platforms to drive the entire connected system, and the ability to tap into auto industry assets, work with local communities, and provide for equitable transportation solutions.
“Activating Michigan Avenue is Bill Ford’s vision, while at the state we were looking for ways to develop the first connected corridor,” Pawl says. “Cavnue was created from Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners, and they will be a co-developer of the first future corridor. With a company like that, they could have developed this someplace else — like in Long Beach, Calif. — but they selected Detroit.
“They were impressed that all of us at the state and local level were working together with industry and academia. And if you can write a playbook in Detroit and Michigan for autonomous and connected roads, you can replicate it anywhere in the world.”
The corridor is intended to create lanes that are purpose-built to accelerate and enhance the full potential of connected and autonomous vehicles. Cavnue will work with regional partners to plan, design, and develop the roadway, combining innovations in physical, digital, coordination, and operational infrastructure. The innovations are intended to help increase the safety, efficiency, resilience, and operations of connected roadways.
The project will be designed to evolve to meet transportation goals, but in the beginning the dedicated lanes will accommodate linked buses and shared mobility vehicles such as vans and shuttles, and expand to other connected and autonomous vehicles like freight and personal vehicles.
In addition, it will advance policy goals of achieving neutrality among vehicle OEMs through standards-based approaches; enhancing accessibility, affordability, and equity; and aligning with regional planning efforts. The tech track will also encourage R&D, economic development, and open data access, and will promote shared learning, cybersecurity, and replicability.
Before the 24-month planning cycle is over, Pawl says there will be a live demonstration of the technology to ensure its reliability before Michigan Avenue is outfitted with high-speed fiber, sensors, and cellular arrays as well as dedicated traffic lanes. With phase one underway, Pawl describes the process as “blueprint to recipe” before work on phase two — installing actual infrastructure components — can begin.
For the barriers that will, at times, separate autonomous from local traffic, Pawl says the planners must consider variables like providing for ambulances to get through a given area with no delays. While the barricades will enhance safety, other considerations for the tech track are digital signage, high-definition road maps, smart curbs, charging stations, sensors, and a seamless transition from one community to the next.
Pawl explains the development phase won’t be done in a vacuum. “We may bring in other roads like I-94, and everyone will have a say in what is built,” he says. “We want to improve upon what’s going on in Corktown, and improve transportation to Detroit Metro Airport, and connect Detroit and Ann Arbor. But it’s not a solely Detroit-to-Ann-Arbor solution.
“We know smart infrastructure saves lives. (The connected roadway) also will help communities like Inkster because it will create new business models and new destinations to drive revenue. Plus, it creates equity and improves access. We want everyone who travels in this corridor to have access to equitable transportation.”
With Ford as an initial partner, Pawl says a big selling point in attracting Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners and Cavnue was that the automaker has the most assets along the corridor, including “two living laboratories” in the form of the emerging Michigan Central Station located 14 blocks west of downtown Detroit, and the Research and Engineering Center in Dearborn. The automaker also has one of the world’s most advanced data centers near its world headquarters, which also flanks U.S. Route 12.
David Dubensky, chairman and CEO of Ford Motor Land Development Corp. in Dearborn, says his team is putting the finishing design touches on a new 2-million-square-foot building at the Research and Engineering Center, located across Oakwood Boulevard from the main entrance to The Henry Ford.
“Half of the new building will be studio space for designers, and the other half will be office space,” Dubensky says. “Our other transformational project, Michigan Central Station, will be an innovation hub for mobility. We still believe that, going forward, there will be an element of working at home that will be permanent and ongoing, and there will be a need for office space for work that’s collaborative. These two sites will be really important to our future.”
On top of those investments — the train station transformation will cost $744 million — Ford is pumping $700 million into the construction of the Rouge Electric Vehicle Center in Dearborn to build an all-electric F-150 by mid-2022. The neighboring Ford Rouge Center, where the F-150 has long been produced, along with a soon-to-be-released F-150 PowerBoost hybrid, also benefit from the capital infusion. In turn, 300 new jobs will support battery assembly and the rollout of the electric and hybrid models.
Further west, in Wayne, the automaker is spending $750 million and creating 2,700 jobs at its Michigan Assembly Plant. The factory, located along U.S. Route 12, is already producing a redesigned Ford Ranger pickup, while three new Ford Bronco models will begin rolling off the assembly line next year. Part of the plant space will be dedicated to autonomous vehicles.
All told, between the investments at Michigan Central Station, the two assembly plants, future production space, and the transformation of the automaker’s Research and Engineering Center, Ford is spending more than $2.5 billion in southeast Michigan. The automaker also is a partner at both Mcity and the American Center for Mobility.
The most visible project of the total investment is Michigan Central Station, where in the first half of 2023 Ford will have some 5,000 people working on-site, split evenly between its own mobility-centered employees and those working among its automotive partners. The hub of innovation for mobility overall will include four buildings, three existing structures, and one yet-to-be-built facility on the west side of the train station (and a possible second parking deck; the first will open southeast of the depot in 2022).
Just east of the train station, the original Roosevelt Warehouse, which became a Detroit Public Schools Book Depository facility, is being transformed into an innovation hub, says Carolina Pluszczynski, Ford’s Detroit development director for Michigan Central Station. It joins The Factory at Michigan Avenue and Rosa Parks Boulevard, where 220 Ford employees are working on mobility and EV solutions.
“We need to collaborate because one company can’t do it alone,” Pluszczynski says. “The Book Depository has really open floor plates, and we see it as a space where these serendipitous collisions of people working together will occur to advance these solutions much quicker. We also have partnered with the surrounding neighborhoods. We host virtual community meetings, we have a neighborhood newsletter, and (we set up) an information center in The Factory that was closed due to COVID-19, but we’re using technology like digital windows (along Michigan Avenue) to help keep the public informed.”
Overall, among the three buildings, there’s more than 1.2 million square feet of commercial space. At the former train station, built in 1913, Ford and its partners will occupy some three-quarters of the space, while the rest will be split between hospitality offerings on the top floors and public space on the main level. The latter area will be available for restaurants, stores, art galleries, and other uses.
The investment by Ford west of downtown Detroit spans or is close to several neighborhoods, including Corktown, West Side Industrial, North Corktown/Briggs, Hubbard-Richard, Millenium Village, and Mexicantown. Over the past two years, several new initiatives have been instituted to provide for future development needs in the area, all of which will benefit from new high-speed fiber lines and other state-of-the-art communication platforms.
The developments will be complemented by the upcoming Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Centennial Park, a 22-acre riverfront oasis being planned by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, which has been building a 5.5-mile riverwalk that connects the MacArthur Bridge at Belle Isle to the Ambassador Bridge in southwest Detroit. The conservancy also is working with Ford and others on a public greenway (formerly May Creek and railroad tracks) that will connect the train station and other areas to the Wilson park.
Among the new projects: The Corner, a $31-million mixed-use development at the site of the former Tiger Stadium at Michigan and Trumbull avenues, which opened last year, features 111 multifamily units of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments, with 20 percent designated affordable at 80 percent of area median income.
Working with our partners to transform this site (old tiger stadium) has been incredible, and we’re looking forward to continuing (to enhance) the energy and excitement throughout the community. — Eric Larson
The four-story project by Larson Realty Group in Detroit, in which every residence overlooks the Detroit PAL Corner Ballpark, where the Detroit Tigers professional baseball team played for several decades before moving to Comerica Park in 2000, also includes 27,000 square feet of ground-level retail space. “Working with our partners to transform this site has been incredible, and we’re looking forward to continuing (to enhance) the energy and excitement throughout the community,” says Eric Larson, president and CEO of Larson Realty Group.
Immediately east of The Corner, Detroit-based Soave Real Estate Group has completed the first phase of Elton Park Corktown, a $150-million mixed-use development that has 151 residential units across six buildings and 11,400 square feet of retail space. It includes five new buildings and the renovation of the historic Checker Cab Building, which now houses 45 one-bedroom and seven two-bedroom apartments, as well as 2,500 square feet of ground-floor retail space.
Moving to the south side of Michigan Avenue at Eighth Street, Hunter Pasteur Homes in Farmington Hills, along with Chicago-based Oxford Capital Group, plan to break ground next spring or summer on the Godfrey Hotel. The seven-story, 227-room hotel is scheduled to open in early 2023 and will offer a rooftop lounge for up to 400 people, a large banquet room on the first floor, a restaurant, and a lobby bar.
“We have all of the equity raised for the project, and it’s nice that we have a property that will be just west of downtown Detroit,” says Randy Wertheimer, president and CEO of Hunter Pasteur Homes. “We see the Corktown areas as similar to other near-downtown projects in Denver and Chicago. We have three other properties in Corktown under contract, and we look forward to announcing a beautiful residential development.”
Getting all of the current residents, businesses, commuters, and visitors connected to the tech track along Michigan Avenue will be a Herculean effort. The different forms of communication that could come into play include high-speed fiber, small cellular arrays that make up 5G, GPS satellites, Wi-Fi systems, sensors, DSRC (dedicated short range communications), and CBRS (citizens broadband radio service), says Chuck Irvin, director of network development at 123Net, a business internet service provider in Southfield.
The company, which has built out a fiber network of more than 4,000 miles in Michigan, developed the Detroit Internet Exchange, a not-for-profit Regional Internet Exchange Point that offers a collaboration of carriers, ISPs (internet service providers), and enterprise businesses where web traffic can be exchanged freely, rather than paying to make a connection. Key members on the exchange include GM, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Merit.
“There’s a ton of excitement around this project, and while Detroit is the automotive capital of the world, we did see some slippage to Silicon Valley and Detroit was on defense,” Irvin says, “but now, with the connected corridor and other advancements coming from the Big Three, Detroit and Michigan are on the offensive. The installation of high-speed fiber will be a catalyst for Michigan Avenue, complemented by other communication platforms. The Detroit Internet Exchange is a neutral carrier network, meaning no one has complete ownership of the system. That means anyone can come on the system and use it.”
He adds the Detroit exchange promotes the use of dark fiber, where one company that has extra fiber capacity can allow someone else to tap into what’s not being used (for a fee). It cuts costs even further.
“Everyone can have safe access to the exchange, while at the same time no one organization controls it,” Irvin says. “For what’s being planned along Michigan Avenue, you’ll need a lot of redundancy. High-speed fiber is one part of the solution, but when you put everything together, our region and state can really drive the next generation of autonomous connectivity. That’s exciting.”
Connected Corridor Checklist
Multiple needs and technologies are being integrated into the world’s first dedicated autonomous roadway along Michigan Avenue from Detroit to Ann Arbor, as well as transportation routes that will connect to public destinations like Detroit Metropolitan Airport in Romulus. The communication platform will provide for driverless vehicles while powering digital assets for passengers, visitors, pedestrians, joggers, bicyclists, and scooterists. For more information, visit michigancentral.com.
- Real-time traveler information
• Incentives (discounts, travel vouchers, etc.)
• Real-time traffic management
• Dynamic shuttles
• Smart parking
- Multimodal transportation solutions
• Road user charging
• Autonomous vehicles
• Integrated fare management
• Connected vehicles
• Personal travel apps
Source: Ford Motor Co.