Auto Infrastructure Depends on Partnerships, Says City Hall

Detroit looking at smart infrastructure and who will pay for it, Garry Bulluck tells Louis Bedigian.

Smart infrastructure could be one of the most challenging and costly aspects of mobility. Its potential is lauded for connecting self-driving cars with traffic lights, stop signs, crossing signals and a host of other things within a particular environment. However, with many years passing by and little progress made in the development of smarter cities, it might sound like nothing more than a pipe dream.

“The niche for the upgrade of the technology is there to build the infrastructure in,” said Garry Bulluck, deputy chief of mobility innovations for the City of Detroit. “The need for the upgrade is there. I think some of that will be driven by some of the things that we see our state DOT do in partnership with OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers. They have the control over state lines where they’re already invested in some of this technology, so I think it’s kind of a partnership.”

Bulluck said it could start with each state leading the charge and continue on with cities that find a niche to support the growth of smarter infrastructure. “I think, as a city, we at some point need to sit down and talk about how we plan for this,” he added. “Not only how it benefits cars but it has to benefit the people, whether it’s person-activated sidewalks or lights that sense movement in the traffic crossing lane. We need to make sure we’re accommodating people as well as cars.”

Anyone who has ever been to Michigan knows that the state has had a difficult time keeping up with road maintenance. Delays, tight budgets and a host of other issues have all but guaranteed that there will always be potholes and broken pavement somewhere within the state. Consequently, that could make it difficult for drivers to believe that a smart infrastructure, no matter how promising, will be properly maintained.

“Certainly as a city we’re responsible for our own investments,” Bulluck explained. “The funding model you generally see from the feds is 80/20 and then it’s yours and you maintain it. As you look at how it impacts on national commerce and homeland security with our proximity to Canada, I think there’s going to be the interest in making sure Detroit is at the level of the most current technology out there.”

May Mobility, an Ann Arbor AV start-up, has decided to fund and maintain its own smart infrastructure to support its shuttle tests in Detroit. Bulluck didn’t say whether, or not, he thought that strategy would continue but he said there is a joint burden on access to the city’s power grid and its existing system.

“We’re willing to support partnerships where there’s testing equipment brought in and maintained by that tester,” he said. “Certainly if it starts interfering with pedestrian and regular vehicle traffic, then we have to address those issues but that’s the level of partnership. You know the technology, you know how to maintain it. We just have certain levels of integrity for our existing infrastructure that we have to keep in place.”

Last mile challenges

In addition to convenience and safety, autonomous vehicles are hyped as the ultimate solution for the last mile problem. Parking is (and likely always will be) scarce in most cities but an AV could offer door-to-door service that eliminates this issue. At the very least a self-driving shuttle could pick up and drop off people that were forced to park far away from their final destination.

Bulluck is excited about the latter prospects, which could be achieved much faster than full door-to-door autonomy. He has been keeping an eye on May Mobility and hopes the company can grow into an open system that reduces the last mile challenges in Detroit. “If it’s successful, it could allow them to push further away from the core downtown,” said Bulluck. “One of the push/pulls is, when people bring their business to Detroit, they wonder, ‘How much parking can I get?’ If your company is located along a hot frequency transit corridor, is there some allowance we can give you to lessen the number of parking requirements?”

Last mile solutions could make it easier for the city to offer fewer parking spaces within the proximity of an office. As long as there is parking somewhere, and it’s easy and convenient to get to, businesses should be happy. “I think firstly the May Mobility test will really give us an idea of how comfortable people are with using something that’s autonomous or semi-autonomous,” Bulluck added. “Second, I think we will see how it can potentially move people, who currently tend to park closer, away from the central business core.”

Bulluck also likes the idea of reducing congestion and clutter by encouraging more pedestrian foot traffic. He hopes this will allow Detroit to generate more open spaces for the public to enjoy.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *