Reviving the Rust Belt: Detroit Comes Back, With Self-Driving Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 08, 2017

DETROIT—I am standing in downtown Detroit, on a block that a decade ago was populated mostly by empty buildings and ghosts. But that was then—today, the Midwest is back, and Detroit is a big part of that.

Michigan's Mcity and the self-driving Lincoln MKZ. The backdrop is fake but t at blue, blue sky is real. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The former fire station behind me just opened as an ultra-modern Detroit Foundation Hotel, and all around me are construction cranes and old, long-shuttered buildings opening up as in-demand rental properties and (as in the case of auto seating and electrical supplier Lear Corporation, which repurposed a 130-year-old cigar factory) innovation centers.

Downtown Detroit, from the roof of Lear's innovation center, is awakening from its long slumber, with the sound of construction cranes everywhere. Many of the new tenants are self-driving startups. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Detroit and Pittsburgh are competing as self-driving car headquarters, and if Detroit wins out it will be because of live wires like Alisyn Malek, chief operating officer of May Mobility. Not only does this card-carrying Millennial (and former GM engineer) live downtown, but she runs an artists’ cooperative that is finding housing in a rapidly evolving launching pad for the visual arts.

"I chose to stay in Detroit because it is a city full of doers," Malek told me. "People are drawn to Detroit to get things done, with fanfare or not. That's also why I think the Detroit area is the best place to start an autonomous vehicle company--there are lots of skilled individuals with a unique drive to deliver."

Live wire Alisyn Malek of May Mobility: Living downtown, and deploying autonomy right now. (Jim Motavalli photo)

May’s not another company cashing in on the flavor of the moment, all pilot programs and no action, but is laser-focused on deployment now. The company’s first client, Bedrock, owns a great deal of downtown property, and May’s job will be moving thousands of new employees from their renovated buildings to parking lots.

Six-seater autonomous and electric Polaris Gems will soon be moving commuters in downtown Detroit, via May Mobility. (Polaris photo)

The vehicles of choice are electric, self-driving Gems made by Polaris, and they’ll be on the road sooner rather than later. Michigan is one of three states—the others being Florida and California—with no restrictions on the deployment of autonomous vehicles. While I was in Michigan, the House unanimously approved new rules giving the federal government the power to write national rules for autonomy, and the Senate is expected to follow suit. 

The vehicle control center at Michigan's UMTRI creates virtual "traffic" for the autonomous cars on the track to dodge. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“The future for Michigan is at the new space at the intersection of autonomous driving and mobility,” said Jeff Mason, CEO of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. “We have the talent and the infrastructure.”

A Cadillac and a Chrysler 300 completed a Continental/Magna tour--autonomously! (MDOT photo)

Two big auto supplier companies, Magna and Continental, took part last summer in a groundbreaking 300-mile international self-driving demonstration—they drove a Cadillac and a Chrysler 300 autonomously across the border into Canada, then came back safely. Proximity to Canada, which has a pretty significant auto manufacturing base of its own, is a definite plus for Detroit.

Navya's electric and self-driving minivans will start by moving UMich students. The world is next. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The new state law is complemented by two test facilities for self-driving cars, the University of Michigan’s Mcity, and the American Center for Mobility, which is transforming the former Willow Run airport in Ypsilanti (an arsenal of democracy during World War II) into the country’s biggest testing facility. Toyota is already a client.

The Kia Soul demonstrated the power of the connected car--it didn't hit the Honda parked on a blind corner. (Jim Motavalli photo)

“A century ago, the Motor City put itself on the map—and changed the world—because it’s where all the pieces and players came together to take automaking from a small-scale craft to mass production,” said John DeCicco, a research professor at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute. “That’s exactly what’s happening again at Mcity, and throughout greater Detroit. Nowhere else is such a diverse set of players working so intensely together to put in place all the pieces needed to make automated vehicles a reality.”

The Trump administration will announce its new approach to autonomy at Mcity, and it makes sense. During my visit there, I rode in the center’s two self-driving cars—a Lincoln MKZ and a Kia Soul—and also traveled around in the future of commuting, an autonomous electric minibus from France-based startup Navya (soon to go into production in Saline, near Ann Arbor). Navya is also focused on deployment—its Lidar- and camera-equipped vans will shuttle University of Michigan students to class this fall.

All three vehicles ran without a glitch at Mcity. In the Kia, with UMich graduate students manning the laptops (but not the steering wheel), I saw firsthand how connected vehicles will be able to detect and avoid hazards. The Kia had no problem finding a Honda Accord parked on a blind curve and coming to a smooth stop.

The university’s Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) runs a vehicle control center that simulates real-world traffic on the 16 acres of Mcity. Autonomous cars from clients such as Nissan, Honda, Bosch, Ford, Toyota and others are led to believe that the virtual cars on the track are real, and they respond accordingly. The computer even simulates trains arriving at the realistic railroad crossings. ACM will have all of this and more.

Toyota took apart this 2018 Honda Odyssey minivan to study the competition. (Jim Motavalli photo)

At the vast new Toyota Technical Center in Saline, we see (but aren’t allowed to photograph) a hybrid Lexus 600 hL bristling with Lidar, cameras and other equipment. Toyota does all of its self-driving testing in Michigan because the state’s rules make it easier.

This is how Toyota tests windshield wipers! (Jim Motavalli photo)

In Saline, Toyota uses 3D printing to fabricate parts for the prototypes it builds for auto shows, and to test new models. TTC is also where the company compares its offerings to those of the competition—long racks hold the parts (catalytic converters to carpets) from completely dismantled Honda and Chrysler minivans. It’s like Christmas for suppliers, who can come in and see how the other guys do it.

That left rack holds every part from a dismantled Odyssey, for the suppliers to study. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The challenges to self-driving cars are clear enough—they have difficulties when the weather is bad (seeing the lane markings), maintaining maps with current information, making left-hand turns across traffic, figuring out human signals (such as a cop waving traffic through red lights). But these barriers are falling one by one. 3M, for instance, is deriving simple bar codes that will enable cars to “see” construction crews.

A huge 3D printer at the Toyota Technical Center. Soon it will be possible to make production-ready parts with machines like this. Then look out! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Rust-belt Detroit may be associated with the old-line auto industry in the public’s mind—and there is a rich history, of course—but there’s ample evidence that it’s part of the future, too. Here's a self-driving car on the road at Mcity, doing cool things:

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One