Monday, April 15, 2024

The “Mobility” Council’s Report: Buy A Car, Peasants

Happy Friday, Handbuilders! Yesterday afternoon, the Michigan Council on Future Mobility and Electrification— formerly just the Council on Future Mobility- released their preliminary report on, well, the future of cars. The report is 35 pages of economic development cheerleading about how robot cars will change the world, water is wet. The CFME’s preoccupation with car manufacturing– and complete neglect of anything involving infrastructure- represents a pretty serious deficiency in the culture of the agencies involved. It also illustrates why our state has struggled to grow over the past 40 years under both Republicans and Democrats. The failure to invest in real infrastructure has resulted in economic stagnation because of the automotive tax that every citizen pays in the form of having to own a car and having to pay princely sums of tax money to support infrastructure for cars. This isn’t a radical point to make.

There is little to no interest in modernizing infrastructure. There’s interest in assisting car companies in developing and selling things. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the report barely mentioned non-motorized and public transportation. Additionally, there was no mention of DTE’s limited ability to increase market penetration of electric vehicles, or the ongoing challenges of upgrading local power grids to handle futureproofed infrastructure for high-capacity charging. This is a critical hurdle in EV adoption. DTE admits that it can’t handle more than 20% EV adoption in the near future, and the “whose line is it anyway” debate they’re having in the installation of electrified fleet solutions highlights the challenges of getting this stuff done.


Mentions of Autonomous & Cars


Mentions of Public Transit


Mentions of Nonmotorized Transportation

The Council

The CFME was assembled last year by the governor. The state has several voting representatives on the board, including Paul Ajegba of MDOT and Tremaine Phillips of the MPSC. Non-state voting members include Bob Babik of GM, Emily Frascaroli of Ford, and, the lone, token, non-automotive, and, puzzlingly, token non-transportation person, clean energy dude Cory Connolly of the Energy Innovation Business Council. Non-voting members include four elected officials and four senior advisors.

In Other News

Looking through the rest of the report, it’s fairly clear what the priorities are. Electrification! SuperCruise! EV charging points! BorgWarner batteries! Electric pickups! Ford infotainment systems! Trade with Israel! A lot of car stuff, too. The lone non-car thing is the governor’s appointments to the Council on Climate Solutions. Look, Governor: I don’t have any problem with you promoting the auto industry. That is, after all, one of the only things this state cares about. But don’t call it something it’s not. Don’t call it “mobility” if it’s really just “cars.” In the mean time, the CFME’s conclusion? Buy a car, peasants!

The report also refers to Cavnue, a yet-pretty-much-top-secret project to build a Connected Autonomous Vehicle avenue between Detroit and Ann Arbor, as “one of the most ambitious mobility initiatives in history.” This hyperbole is tantamount to the likes of when Tupac Shakur declared, “no man alive has ever witnessed struggles I survived.” Or, as Luo Yang pointed out, when people declared the First World War to be the “War To End All Wars.”

(Repeated requests for comment from Cavnue were declined, and I couldn’t even get my contacts at WSP to tell me anything, even off the record). 

Leland Stanford Would Like A Word

We looked through the history books to find some “mobility initiatives” that were arguably more ambitious than Cavnue. I figured that there are plenty of recent examples– like the Chunnel , the London Crossrail ($20-billion-some USD), the embattled California HSR, the Gotthard-Basistunnel (Base Tunnel) in Switzerland, or, well, virtually any project in China, a country that, for all its many faults, cares about building infrastructure.

So, here are a few ideas from the history books on projects that are more ambitious than a robot car freeway. Let’s do a little countdown:

4. The Transcontinental Railroad.

Completed from 1863 to 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad of California joined with the Union Pacific to form a 1,912-mile route connecting San Francisco with Council Bluffs, Iowa. A transcontinental railroad was enormously valuable to connect markets for labor, resources, and, eventually, manufactured goods, during a time when the American West was becoming increasingly populated by settlers. It worked. California more than doubled in population from 1870 to 1890. It would almost double again from 1890 to 1910.

Andrew J. Russell, official photographer of the Union Pacific. Public Domain.
3. The Berlin Airlift.

This was arguably the first showdown of the Cold War. It was an organized effort by Allied powers to supply powers to the two million-some residents of West Berlin from 26 June 1948 to 30 September 1949, after the Soviet Army blockaded the city to prevent Allied access. Berlin had suffered substantial damage during the war, but it had escaped the fate of cities like Dresden, which were reduced entirely to rubble. Supplying any city with supplies was a challenge. Supplying a war-torn city with supplies but also the ability to rebuild was a monumental feat. As the German capital, it was a vital site for economic and strategic importance, and ended up being divided by Soviet-controlled East Berlin and Allied-controlled West Berlin until 1989.

200,000 flights logged enough miles to fly to the sun. This might be called fairly ambitious.

Photo by Henry Ries / USAF – United States Air Force Historical Research Agency. (Public Domain)
2. The Panama Canal.

A man, a plan, a canal– Panama! This project was completed in phases, beginning in 1881 and finishing in 1913. It crossed 51 miles of jungle, swamp, and lakeland. 40% of the workers who worked on this project– some 30,000 workers- died. You read that correctly. This fatality rate is worse than that of Mt. Everest climbers. Prior to US involvement, an ill-fated venture by diplomat and wheeler-dealer Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps effected a disastrous loss of investment capital– and 22,000 lives. The canal represented an unprecedented ability to move stuff from the Atlantic to the Pacific without having to circumnavigate the treacherous Cape Horn.

Thomas Marine, 1913. Public Domain.
1. The Apollo Moon Landing.

Side by side, slide by space in time, the Neil Armstrong telecasts of 1969. On 20 July, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the surface of Earth’s favorite celestial body, helping complete what was probably the ultimate campaign promise of John F. Kennedy in 1961. Many Americans watched this unfold on television, a first for major events in the new technology. This was the ultimate triumph of American ingenuity over The Reds. One might wonder what Buzz and Neil would say if they knew that people in Michigan thought that mass transit or, really, any mobility alternatives to the automobile, was a Communist conspiracy. (Credit to Edward Woestman for this suggestion).

NASA controllers communicating on what was at that time probably the most ambitious mobility initiative ever attempted. Sometimes, gazing up at the stars, we long for a simpler time, when headsets were wired, a cup of coffee came in styrofoam, shirts were short-sleeved, ties were skinny, and pockets were protected. Photo from NASA.
Honorable mentions

Honorable mentions included some notable military actions. The invasion of Normandy (credit William Turner), or the sieges of Constantinople (1453) or Tyre (332 BC, credit Edward Woestman). The Mongol invasion of Japan was ambitious and a spectacular failure (1274 and 1281). The State Route 99 tunnel in Seattle, built at a cost of a billion-some dollars per mile, was another runner-up (credit Tim Skrotzki). The Forth Bridge (1889) and the Brooklyn Bridge were pretty cool, I thought.

Well. Is there anything good about the report?

Well, sure. There’s a lot of good stuff that could come out of autonomous vehicles, driving down the path of the Ghost Road, as Anthony Townsend called it. Most of it is already here. I’m referring to the technologies that make us safer on the road by using a combination of fairly basic sensor response. Lane-keeping assist has been around for years but continues to grow in popularity. Automatic emergency braking is increasingly prevalent in new cars, and has been proven to save lives (and cars).

Absent an interest in creating a robust regulatory road map– pardon the metaphor- to guide the process of technological development in this space, we’re on the wrong Ghost Road. This is the one where we just get more noise, more traffic, and less economic benefit. And absent an interest in investing in things other than cars, well, it’s just more and more of the same. Absent an interest in protecting workers and the environment in the process, all we’re doing is kicking the can down the road. Michigan will have the same population in ten years, twenty years, thirty years, as far more competitive states adopt more progressive policies to effect economic improvement for all, not just the automakers.

A representative of MEDC responded by e-mail last night that “the Council is only a few months old and needs to tackle autos first [because] of the broad implications.” I suppose we will see! Wishing everyone a great weekend. And remember to look both ways before crossing the street, wear your seatbelts, etc. 

This article is part of an ongoing series on mobility and infrastructure. We will write up a lot more about Cavnue when Mark De La Vergne responds to e-mails. The Handbuilt City is made possible by the generous support of paid subscribers on the Patreon and Liberapay platforms, and by readers like you.

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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