Detroit Driverless Binge to Push Tech and Acceptance

Autonomy will take to the streets next June during the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS).

Except, they’re not calling it autonomy. “Automated” is the official term for the five demos that may wow or worry the public. The NAIAS 2020 Michigan Mobility Challenge, a project of the governor’s office, MDOT and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s PlanetM program, requested proposals for demonstrations of connected and automated vehicles providing “circulator experiences” to ferry visitors and the general public not only to the show but also to points of interest in and around downtown.

The most basic qualifications were that demo vehicles have at least evel 3 autonomy and be able to operate on public streets. While the group set minimum expectations for areas of operation and levels of technology, “It became a very flexible animal to let individual teams propose unique technologies and partnerships,” says Elise Feldpausch, connected vehicle specialist with MDOT. “The project evolved beyond our minimum expectations to include unique solutions and demonstrations.”

Five groups won the right to provide mobility during the preview week and public days of 2020 NAIAS:

  • Continental, EasyMile, Nexteer Automotive, 3M, CNX Motion and Oakland University will provide fixed-route shuttle service using three automated 15-passenger vehicles;
  • Navya and Wayne State University will provide fixed-route shuttle service using 15-passenger vehicles with accessibility options including an automated ramp and restraints for paratransit riders and shuttle suspension kneels at curb;
  • Yandex, Hyundai Mobis and Lawrence Tech will deploy 10 Hyundai Sonata four-passenger robo-taxis operating with fixed stops;
  • Local Motors and Robotic Research will offer two fully automated Olli shuttles along a fixed route;
  • AutoGuardian by Smart Cone, Aurrigo, Salander and RDM Group will operate two automated, electric, 10-passenger shuttles along a fixed route with six stops.

Amanda Roraff, managing director of PlanetM, says companies’ pitches went through extensive reviews. In addition to the minimum criteria, she says: “We also asked them to tell us what is unique or first of its kind. In one case, 80% of the shuttle is 3D printed. In some cases, it was the integration of companies working together that created a unique partnership.”

Automated, not autonomous

It’s notable that these demonstrations are being marketed as “automated,” not “autonomous” vehicles. This is both an acknowledgment that it will be a long time before true AVs mingle with conventional cars and a nod to consumer distrust.

Continental surveys have found that consumers were 50% more concerned about the reliability of automated driving systems in 2018 than they were in 2013.

If all goes well, the NAIAS demonstrations could be a great PR tool for the industry, according to Mark Fitzgerald, associate director of Strategy Analytics’ global automotive practice. “The general public is different than your typical tech-savvy show goer. A show like this could be really good to alleviate public worry about these systems,” he says.

Continental plus partners

The Continental team brings together six entities that were already partners. Conti and 3M officially teamed up in October 2019 to explore infrastructure-to-vehicle interfaces, while the Tier 1 has used EasyMile’s EZ10 for its CUbE.

Jeremy McClain, director, systems and technology, North America, chassis and safety division of Continental, promises to push CUbE further. “We’ll put some pieces together that we haven’t already, pilot some things and get some exposure and feedback.”

Those new pieces include Continental’s infrastructure optimization work with 3M and its own intelligent intersection technology, as well as cabin-monitoring technology and human/machine interface work. “It’s one of these opportunities to explore the different modes of transportation that automated vehicle will be able to offer,” McClain says. That includes tuning services to different times of day, including rush hour, when there are big crowds of people going in one direction.

To serve the rush, Continental’s service may include platooning the three shuttles. McClain explains, “At times like that, it makes more sense from a fleet management perspective to have a high-capacity mode, so we can platoon vehicles together as a tram. At other times of day when demand is dispersed, you can adapt to the different demand that you see. The question will be whether wait times are improved or not in a dynamic environment.”

Integrated with public transit

The circulator experiences will be open to anyone who wants to hop on. Moovit will integrate route and timing information into its extant consumer app that already offers public-transit and micro-mobility options. The idea is to show people how their transport might look in the future when such options might be generally available.

Yovav Meydad, Moovit’s chief growth and marketing officer, says, “This will be the first time anyone integrates autonomous vehicle routes into a multimodal trip planner environment and exposes it to any user. Anyone will be able to download the app and book a ride.” Feldpausch adds: “The app allows individuals to use a familiar tool to procure these technologies. They’ll be able to interact with these technologies in a way that’s familiar and akin to their lifestyle.”

However, that could backfire, warns Fitzgerald. “It can’t look half-baked,” he say. “Especially when compared with the Uber and Lyft apps that everyone is familiar with and work quite well. It would have to work at least as well, if not better.”


One of the most exciting, not to say challenging, aspects of these projects will be mixing automated vehicles with regular traffic and the hubbub of pedestrians, bikes, scooters and buses. “This will definitely be more challenging in an urban environment, a working city, because they’re not shutting the city down for the auto show,” Fitzgerald says. “It’s a pretty big differentiator from other demonstrations.”

Yandex operates ride-hailing services in 17 countries and it has offered autonomous ride-hailing services in Innopolis and Skolkovo, Russia, for a year and a half, while testing its self-driving technology in Moscow and Tel Aviv.

“On the side of the ride-hailing service, we had a ready to use product. On the side of technology, there is no big difference if you drive the car with a passenger or without,” says Artem Fokin, head of business development at Yandex self-driving cars. “Detroit is a new location for us, so it has all the challenges of driving in a new place. These are different traffic rules, road infrastructure and so-called social rules – the way drivers behave themselves on the road.”

On the other hand, Fokin expects automated driving in Detroit to be easier than in Moscow or Tel Aviv. “American drivers are well disciplined, which makes the road situation more predictable and easier for an AV to drive.”

He’s also found that the states that allow autonomous test vehicles on public roads have the most progressive regulations in the world. “The procedures you need to complete to get permission are simple and transparent. Detroit in particular is a great place for us to test our robo-taxi service in the center of a big city.”

Safety inside and outside the vehicle

While awareness of automotive cybersecurity has increased, not much is said about the physical security of AVs and their passengers. In an uncontrolled environment like downtown Detroit, it may be inevitable that people will want to screw with the vehicles.

“It’s definitely human nature,” Fitzgerald days. “Once people know that an autonomous vehicle can’t or won’t hit them, they’ll jaywalk with impunity.”

For riders, Fitzgerald identifies other issues. “If an autonomous vehicle is doing something a rider doesn’t like or agree with, are their recourses? Can they tell the vehicle to stop so they can get out?”

Or, what happens if someone gets motion sick and wants to get out immediately, even though it’s not at a scheduled stop? Will the vehicle let that person out? If so, where does it pull over? Does that happen quickly enough? “That’s where a backup driver can help quite a bit,” he notes.

There will, of course, be backup drivers in the NAIAS demos, not only for emergencies but also to answer questions from the public. The organizers required providers to submit extensive safety plans, and they’ll be connected to public-safety personnel, as well.

Continental will use a new HMI from EasyMile, focusing on different modalities of communication with passengers and pedestrians around the vehicle, not only visual indicators but also audible indicators to make sure people riding in the vehicle understand where it’s going and where it’s going to stop next. McClain says questions to be addressed include how pedestrians waiting for a ride communicate with the vehicle and how the shuttle indicates it’s safe for them to cross the street.

In-cabin monitoring may include technologies that can identify objects and situations, and then automatically notify the fleet operations center that, for example, someone’s left behind a belonging or the interior needs cleaning.

“A lot of the details are being developed,” McClain says, “but, in the same way that camera sensors can detect things outside, they can also detect them inside the vehicle. We’ll use artificial intelligence to detect pattern changes or types of articles.”

A sense of security will be important to the public. PlanetM’s Roraff says: “This is an opportunity to help build public trust and demonstrate how autonomy can improve quality of life as part of a holistic transit system.”

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