Is the Motor City ready to say goodbye to the automobile?

The autonomous revolution comes to Detroit

click to enlarge Is the Motor City ready to say goodbye to the automobile?
Illustration by Stephen William Schudlich

Our ride has arrived — a squat, blue vehicle that looks more like an appliance than an automobile. A large door slides open and we step inside.

It's called the Arma, a fully electric and autonomous shuttle developed by a French startup called Navya. Today is the Arma's maiden voyage in North America, and Navya is celebrating with a public demonstration at the University of Michigan's Mcity facility, a 32-acre proving grounds complete with traffic lights, bike lanes, roundabouts, and a cardboard cutout-like downtown.

Inside, the Arma's seats face each other. The journalists sit down toward the front, facing backward, and soon the shuttle creeps forward. It's a mildly eerie sensation — not being able to see the road ahead, the relative quiet of the Arma's electric motors, and knowing that the vehicle is being driven not by a human chauffeur but rather an unseen artificial intelligence.

It's also apparently the Arma's first Michigan winter.

"As you can see today, we can drive on the snow, which is a premiere for us," Henri Coron, Navya's director of business development, says from the backseat. "It's a premiere in the U.S., and a premiere on the snow."

Coron gestures toward the tire tracks Arma leaves behind us in the light dusting of snow. "As you can see it's quite impressive — you can see the trace of the vehicle, with centimeters' precision," he says. "We always use the same route and the same track, so we don't deviate more than two centimeters." (A closer inspection of the tire tracks later confirms this to be true.)

Opened in 2015, Mcity is the world's first controlled environment specifically designed to test autonomous vehicle technologies. It's part of the university's Mobility Transformation Center, a partnership between industry leaders like Ford Motor Co. and the school's various resources.

In recent years, "mobility" has become a broad industry buzzword that encompasses new technologies in transportation. A subset of that is autonomous, or self-driving vehicles. Another subset is ride-sharing or ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, and how autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing will work in tandem in the coming years to completely reshape the way we think about transportation.

At Mcity, the Arma will shuttle researchers and visitors from the facility's offices to the proving grounds. A Navya spokesman explains the shuttle's route is pre-programmed, with passengers using a touchscreen to select a stop on the circuit.

A journalist asks how the Arma knows when to stop, and as if on cue, the vehicle suddenly comes to a halt. A catering truck delivering food to Mcity's nearby press tent has parked in the middle of the road, blocking the way.

"At least it works," Coron jokes.

"That wasn't planned!" MTC's deputy director Carrie Morton insists.

The Arma doesn't attempt an alternative route. Instead, it waits until the catering truck moves out of the way and resumes its journey. Soon, our 10-minute loop through Mcity is over, and after we exit, we take a photo of the car and post it to Instagram.

"Jesus," one colleague, an unrepentant car geek, writes in the comments. "I wish these auto-driving machine manufacturers would start hiring automotive designers instead of toaster designers."

The future has arrived. It's just not very sexy.

click to enlarge Navya’s Arma at Mcity. - Photo courtesy University of Michigan
Photo courtesy University of Michigan
Navya’s Arma at Mcity.

Send in the robots

For a long time, self-driving cars existed more as a dream than reality. At the 1939 World's Fair, General Motors imagined radio-controlled cars that would be propelled by electrical currents in circuits embedded under the roads. Now the technology is far more sophisticated, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, GPS, and other developments.

A lidar (a combination of "lasers" and "radar") uses laser beams to create a detailed 3-D map of the car's surroundings, while cameras can identify other cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and other obstacles. Now, technological realities have caught up with the imagination — and it's materializing faster than many people might realize.

On Dec. 9, the same day Mcity and Navya held their press event, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of bills that completely overhauled Michigan's autonomous vehicle laws. He chose Dearborn's Automotive Hall of Fame as the backdrop for the occasion, a symbolic gesture to meant to hark back to metro Detroit's legacy as the birthplace of the American auto industry, and hopefully herald its future.

The legislation updated a 2013 law that allowed testing of autonomous vehicles in Michigan as long as a human was behind the wheel. Now, that human is no longer required — or even a steering wheel or pedals. The public is allowed to buy and use fully autonomous vehicles on any Michigan roadway when they become commercially available, as can ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft. The legislation also created the Michigan Council on Future Mobility to make recommendations on statewide policy on autonomous vehicles. (The bills passed through the House and Senate with near unanimous support.)

If the Motor City hasn’t been the leader in driverless technology, we could now be poised to become it.

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"I'm excited to sign this bill," Snyder said at the time. "In my heart I view this as a portal opening for safety, for opportunity for more economic success. We should be proud we're leading the world, right here in Michigan."

In fact, Michigan hasn't exactly been a leader the world in terms of autonomous vehicles. So far, most of the buzz about autonomous technology has focused on Silicon Valley companies like Google, Apple, Tesla, and Uber. Other states and Washington, D.C., have had laws permitting autonomous vehicles for several years, and some companies have already begun testing the technology on real streets in real cities — not just Mcity's simulacra of one.

In 2011, Nevada became the first jurisdiction in the world to authorize autonomous vehicles on public roads. In 2015, Google parent company Alphabet's autonomous car project, Waymo — another squat, cutesy vehicle resembling a white Volkswagen Beetle capped with a large black sensor system on top — completed the world's first fully autonomous ride on public roads by giving a blind man in Austin, Texas, a lift. Last year, Pittsburgh struck a deal with Uber to use the city as a testing ground for its fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions — making it the first city in the world to open autonomous ride-sharing to the public (though they have human supervisors behind the wheel). Late last year, San Francisco followed suit.

Now, however, Michigan's autonomous laws are the broadest in the nation. If the Motor City hasn't been the leader in driverless technology, we could now be poised to become it.

A love-hate relationship

Despite that "Motor City" moniker, it's not unreasonable to conclude that the whole car thing hasn't worked out that well here.

Think of the absurdity that is the technological dystopia of present-day Detroit.

Through a confluence of factors, Detroit has one of the worst public transportation systems out of any major U.S. city. For the past few decades, to get anywhere in this sprawling metropolis in a reasonable amount of time, there was no real way around it — you had to own a car. Yet today, our auto insurance rates are among the nation's highest, and our roads are among the nation's lousiest. A 2014 U-M study found that 26 percent of Detroit households didn't own a car — one of the highest rates in the nation for a big city. Unlike other cities on the list, it's not because of public transportation.

Even worse, there's an approximately 1 in 10,449 chance you could die in a car crash in Michigan. Mere days before Navya's press event and Snyder's bill-signing, a snow whiteout caused 53-car pileup on I-96 near Fowlerville that killed three people and injured 11 others.

In 2015, 297,023 car crashes and 963 deaths were reported, according to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. Each year in the U.S. there are some 6 million car accidents and 33,000 deaths. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined 94 percent of accidents are the fault of drivers.

With today's technology, autonomous vehicles are able to be far better drivers than humans. They can see things we can't, like a deer darting through the trees toward the road. They'll never get tired. They'll never drink one too many beers at the bar. And they'll never get distracted by a cellphone.

A 2013 report by the nonprofit Eno Center for Transportation found that converting just 10 percent of the existing U.S. cars to autonomous would reduce the number of accidents each year by 211,000 and save 1,000 lives. A shift to 90 percent autonomous would reduce the number of accidents each year by 4.2 million, saving 21,700 lives.

But the automobile — the non-autonomous, old-fashioned automobile — holds a special place in the psyche of America, especially so in metro Detroit. For many, it's symbolic: of American ingenuity, of adulthood, of power, of freedom (paradoxically, given our lack of choice in the matter). Driving cars is a part of our cultural DNA.

Even with the decadeslong decline of the auto industry in our region, there are still plenty of people who work directly in the industry or in an auxiliary field, or at least knows someone who does. People are loyal to car brands the way sports fans are loyal to their favorite teams. For many Michiganians, the love of driving could be compared to, say, the way Texans love their guns.

click to enlarge Waymo, the autonomous car project by Google parent company Alphabet. - Photo courtesy of Waymo
Photo courtesy of Waymo
Waymo, the autonomous car project by Google parent company Alphabet.

Just ask Autoline's John McElroy, a metro Detroit-based journalist who has covered the industry for decades. McElroy calls autonomous technology "the most exciting thing I've ever seen in the automotive industry in my entire career." Not all of his followers share his enthusiasm, though.

"I do get the occasional letter from a viewer who says, 'I don't want to see any of this crap, not in my lifetime' kind of stuff," he says. But these people, he says, are slowly changing their minds. "Even people who two or three years ago thought, 'Eh, this is just a bunch of crap,' are now starting to realize, 'Oh my God. It's for real, and it's going to happen.'"

The technology, McElroy says, will completely reorder our society. For the modern American — especially a metro Detroiter, in this city built entirely on the premise of car ownership — it's hard to imagine a life without the automobile as we know it.

The problem is that lifestyle is massively inefficient.

Think of a hallmark of the modern suburban landscape — a shopping center surrounded by a half-empty parking lot. "They all build their parking lots to handle Black Friday shoppers the day after Thanksgiving — and even at that, people are still parked on the grass," McElroy says. "You don't need all those parking spots. So I can see land developers rubbing their hands in glee thinking, 'Hey, we can take these parking spots and put in a lot more businesses.'" (That's assuming the concept of malls survives, McElroy says, and we don't give them up in favor of having Amazon drones delivering goods to our doorsteps.)

A new system could see people go from owning their personal mobility to where they simply buy their mobility as needed. McElroy says it's already happening — witness the rise of services like Uber and Lyft in the United States, BlaBlaCar in Europe, Didi in China, and Ola in India.

"The whole idea is, why should I spend a lot of money to buy a car, which in most cases sits unused for 23 hours a day, all the while depreciating?" he says. "What if I can just whip out my phone, hit the app, and get a ride-sharing service to come pick me up in the next four to five minutes?" McElroy points out that at the prices today, it's far cheaper to go use those mobility services, the Ubers and the Lyfts of the world, than to purchase your own car.

Take out the human driver, and that cost should go down even more, creating an even lower barrier of entry for passengers. And a move toward autonomous vehicles would grant different groups of people their own autonomy too — people with disabilities, people with DUIs, the elderly, and even small children could travel with ease.

But would a car lover like McElroy be able to give up the driver seat so easily?

"Look, I don't like driving in stop-and-go traffic," he says. "I'd like to have an extra glass of wine at dinner. Sure, I'm all for autonomy in that regard. I love driving on good roads when there's no traffic around. Sometimes it's fun just to get in a car on a Sunday afternoon and go for a cruise. I think people will not want to give that up."

They’ll never drink one too many beers at the bar. And they’ll never get distracted by a cellphone.

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For better or worse, though, McElroy envisions the advent of autonomous technology will be "massively disruptive" — especially here in the automotive capital of the world. "I'm talking car companies, suppliers, dealers," he says. "It's going to have a huge impact on the insurance business. It's going to have a huge impact on the American health care industry because we're probably going to send 2 million fewer people to hospitals per year once this technology gets deployed and we make nearly impossible for cars to crash."

McElroy envisions a world where autonomous vehicles wait in a facility for people to summon them, and then return for maintenance and to recharge. Car dealerships, with their plethora of parking spots and service bays, could be ready-made to be converted into such mobility hubs, he imagines.

What this change means for the Big Three remains to be seen. McElroy points out that in recent years, Silicon Valley has appeared to back off plans to manufacture its own cars to instead partner with existing automakers. "I think they recognize that's not where they're going to make real inroads," McElroy says. "And besides, the car companies have 100 years of experience in how to do this. They're not going to disrupt that."

McElroy imagines companies like Apple focusing instead on creating their own ride-sharing services, or creating what he calls "autonomy in a box" systems that can be plugged into cars made by traditional automakers.

"The money is not in making the cars going forward," he says. "That's why GM is developing its own proprietary system. Same with Ford, Mercedes, Volkswagen. They don't want to be held prisoner by Google and Apple."

The uncanny Valley

It's Silicon Valley's involvement in the mobility arms race that has people like Autoweek journalist Rory Carroll skeptical.

"I think anything coming out of Silicon Valley now has to be viewed through the lens of privacy," he says. "You know, Twitter doesn't want your birthday so they can put balloons on your profile on that day."

In other words, the endgame for Silicon Valley isn't to get into the business of transportation — it's to get into your data. "Like, all of a sudden Google is very interested in traffic safety? That's bizarre," Carroll says. "That is, on its face, not true. They're interested in my location data and they're interested in where I'm going and what I'm spending money on — and they're interested in having another screen in front of my face."

Carroll is also concerned with the general tendency of the media to fawn over anything coming out of Silicon Valley. "There's almost a total lack of skepticism because nobody wants to be seen as old school, nobody wants to be seen as fighting against progress or whatever," he says. "But I think that's led us down some really dangerous paths in the past, and it kind of continues to. These people don't have your interests in mind. They're just like everyone else. They're trying to make money. The role of media is to question them and figure out if their desires align with the public good. And that's not happening."

In 2015, Tesla founder Elon Musk famously predicted that human drivers may one day be entirely outlawed, saying, "You can't have a person driving a 2-ton death machine." And while it's doubtless that the new technology for autonomous vehicles is bound to improve exponentially in the coming years, their driving records aren't spot-free.

Last year marked the world's first fatality in an autonomous vehicle crash when a Florida man died after he put his Tesla on autopilot mode to reportedly watch a Harry Potter movie. His car crashed into a truck. (In a statement, Musk said a forthcoming software update would have prevented the crash.)

Also last year, a Google autonomous car collided with another vehicle that ran through a red light, though no injuries were reported.

Later, Musk backpedaled from his ban on human drivers on Twitter, saying, "To be clear, Tesla is strongly in favor of people being allowed to drive their cars and always will be. Hopefully that is obvious."

But does an autonomous near-future necessarily mean the imminent obsolescence of human drivers? Carroll says as a car enthusiast he hopes that lawmakers will make room for driving as a recreational activity and not give it up entirely to the machines.

Is the Motor City ready to say goodbye to the automobile?
Illustration by Stephen William Schudlich

"The steamship didn't kill the sailboat," he says. "The car didn't kill the horse. People still do those very silly things as hobbies. I'd like to see that continue with cars. But that's going to require a legal framework that has to start now."

He sheepishly admits that preserving human drivers because cars can be fun is a weak defense. Most drivers begrudgingly do it because they have no other choice. "No one's going to listen to that, especially the millions of people who hate driving and who are, frankly, a danger on the road," Carroll concedes. "For most people, autonomous cars will be a huge boon for them."

It seems their time will come sooner rather than later.

In Detroit, huge developments in autonomous technology are coming at lightning speed. Last year, Alphabet announced a 53,000-square-foot development facility in Novi. Soon, Ypsilanti's historic Willow Run World War II bomber factory will be transformed into an autonomous vehicle testing facility.

This year's North American International Auto Show features the debut of Automobili-D, a mobility technology symposium held in tandem with its usual exhibition. At NAIAS, Fiat-Chrysler announced an autonomous Pacifica minivan created in partnership with Waymo. GM is currently testing an autonomous Chevy Bolt EV on public roads in Michigan, while Ford recently announced plans to expand its facilities in Flat Rock to release an autonomous vehicle by 2021.

All the pieces are in place for Michigan to go driverless very soon. But at what cost?

While such a paradigm shift will be good news for people who can't or don't like to drive, it will have seismic shifts on other aspects of the economy as we know it. Gone will be the industries that rely on human drivers, like taxis and trucking. Even the factories that make autonomous vehicles could be expected to become further automated, which could be bad news for Michigan's assembly line workers, and we can expect other industries (like fast food) to follow suit. With commute times no longer an issue, it could cause suburban and exurban sprawl to continue, with people happy to live far away from one another.

And there are will be smaller unintended consequences as well.

Writing in New York magazine, Robert Moor laments the impending loss of "the subtler joys" of driving: "You will never take a turn a little too hard, causing that little droopy feeling in your gut. You will never do doughnuts, never peel out, never gun your engine. The shared experience of American adolescence — much of it spent in cars, acquiring a nuanced understanding of when, and how, it is OK to break certain rules — will simply vanish. In exchange, we will be given a few more minutes each day to stare at screens. Lives will be saved, but life will become duller."

Sure, that's another arguably silly thing to lament, especially considering autonomous cars will save human lives. But in that way, we'd merely be exchanging one technological dystopia for another. As far as which one gave us more freedom — that will likely be the debate of the coming era.

About The Author

Lee DeVito

Leyland “Lee” DeVito is the editor in chief of Detroit Metro Times since 2016. His writing has also been published in Hour Detroit, VICE, In These Times, and New City. He once asked porn star Stormy Daniels to spank him with an issue of Metro Times. She obliged...
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