The nation’s first autonomous vehicle corridor is being planned for the Detroit suburbs, running from the center of the Motor City to Ann Arbor, a university town that has become one of the region’s high-tech hubs.
The projected will be developed by a partnership pairing Ford Motor Co., Google parent Alphabet Inc., the State of Michigan and Cavnue, a technology startup aiming to use technology to “build the future of roads. Other automakers, including BMW and General Motors, as well as tech firms like Argo AI, will join in on the project, organizers said.
“Planting this flag in the ground today and getting to work on a regional groundbreaking technology and infrastructure effort sends a strong signal that we will rebound from this (coronavirus) crisis and pick up where we left off,” said Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer said during an announcement of the project outside of the old Michigan Central Depot near downtown Detroit. The facility and several neighboring sites are undergoing a $750 million renovation and will become the headquarters of Ford’s electric and autonomous vehicle programs.
It’s likely to take some time before such a corridor actually opens up. The first phase of the project begins with a “feasibility analysis” by Cavnue that is expected to take about two years. The New York-based firm is a subsidiary of Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners LLC, itself a Google spinoff.
The exact layout has yet to be determined but a preliminary concept laid out by Ford would see the corridor initially run through Detroit along Michigan Avenue, a broad roadway that was once one of the region’s most important roads, connecting the Motor City to Chicago before the Interstate Highway network was developed.
As the corridor heads west, it would shift to a series of limited access lanes on I-94, the highway that eventually replaced Michigan Ave. as the state’s primary east-west route.
The corridor would help connect Detroit to two key airports and then Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan.
“At its core, the project is designed to be ‘future proofed’ and evolve to meet transportation goals, beginning with connected buses and shared mobility vehicles such as vans and shuttles, and expanding to additional types of CAVs (connected and autonomous vehicles) such as freight and personal vehicles,” organizers said in a news release.
As the center of the domestic auto industry, Michigan is already heavily involved in the development of CAVs, with both commercial and governmental funding. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced funding for a 100 square-mile test of connected vehicle technologies.
Connected vehicles use various forms of radio frequency systems to pass information amongst each other and to stay in touch with the local roadway infrastructure. Some Audis, for example, are now capable of advising motorists when traffic lights are set to change in cities like Las Vegas where a grid is taking form. Eventually, the goal is to pass information including traffic and weather conditions, as well as alerts when, for example, a vehicle is running a red light.
A number of manufacturers now are producing semi-autonomous vehicles, Tesla with its Autopilot system, and GM with Super Cruise, for example, allowing limited hands-free operation. The goal is to develop fully hands-free, and even driverless, technology – though how soon such vehicles will be ready is a matter of intense debate.
Proponents are hoping the Michigan project will help speed up development.
“The time has come to start to integrate all of the momentum happening on the vehicle technology side with an equally strong push for innovation on our road assets themselves. We believe that combining technology and physical infrastructure can help unlock the full potential of CAVs and fundamentally transform mobility to improve safety, congestion, and public transit,” said Brian Barlow, co-founder and co-CEO of Cavnue parent Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners.
The firm recently lined up $400 million in funding, much of it from Alphabet.