Will Autonomous Vehicles Drive Detroit’s Future?

A decade following perhaps the greatest inflection point in its existence, Detroit is forging a bright new future. I visited the city for the first time in late June and was astounded by the spirit of renaissance and resilience exuded by people who call the Motor City home.

Only a few years ago, political scandal and economic devastation dominated headlines as the city declared bankruptcy and Americans watched one of the most successful cities in the country suffer greatly. While those days still linger, a new energy is permeating that could result in one of the best comeback-kid success stories in U.S. history.

From Lyft drivers who helped me tour the city and chatting with a local artisanal coffee shop owner, to hearing the strategic visions of Michigan Lt. Governor Calley, Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Sandy Baruah, and nonprofit leader Troy Livingston, they each echoed a hopeful enthusiasm that can only come from a community dedicated to rebuilding.

The automotive sector in particular will continue playing a critical role as Detroit and the State of Michigan build upon its critical mass of talent, expertise and manufacturing strength. And, all signs confirm that smart technology will be at the helm of this coming industrial revolution.

Michigan was the first state in the nation to legalize self-driving vehicles, including ride-sharing services, on public roads. Today, the state ranks number one in the nation in connected and automated vehicle projects. Ford Motor Company recently announced that Detroit will be the new home for its electric and self-driving vehicle businesses along with more than 200 employees.

The autonomous vehicle has become a great hope for how smart city technology and mobility solutions can transform resident life and provide solutions for transportation issues that plague cities across the globe.

The City of Detroit’s Chief of Mobility Innovation, Mark De La Vergne, appears dedicated to leading that charge. He launched the Detroit Mobility Innovation Initiative and leveraged the power of the private sector to bridge gaps left by public services. He rightfully listened to what residents wanted and needed and found innovative ways to solve public transportation issues. In a sprawling town like Detroit, this has a direct impact on livelihood and the ability to keep a job.

But, solidifying Detroit’s place among the leading smart cities in the U.S. will require a great deal more than a singular focus on the automotive industry. For De La Vergne, this is top of mind. In a recent article he mentioned, “Right now, we’re currently building a strategy on this space. Just like everything, we’re going to be really focused on making sure that we can integrate a new type of technology that’s being in service and making sure it benefits everyone in the city. Those are the two biggest principles we’re going to be sticking with. We’re trying to move quickly, because this space is moving quickly.”

One key aspect to a better future in Detroit will be the needed foundation of smart city technology through its digital infrastructure. With 50 billion devices expected to come online by 2020, some of them on four wheels, Detroit’s approach to 5G, the next generation of wireless networks, will be crucial. 5G is expected to provide connection speeds up to 100 times faster than current networks with little to no lag on connection time. Rolling out plans for autonomous vehicles will depend on this ultra-fast speed.

By continuing to look ahead and plan across a broad spectrum of stakeholders including local policymakers and thought leaders, Detroit can demonstrate its approach to implementing future-forward policy frameworks. This will require the public and private sector continuing to work together while city leaders streamline permitting policies and get smart about cost structures.

My hope is that Detroit can be a leading example of how a historically industrial city can utilize modern innovation and connectivity solutions to drastically improve economic opportunity for its residents.