Jim MacInnes flicked his left turn signal, took his feet off the gas pedal and his hands off the wheel, and turned to me as his Tesla floated into the passing lane.
“Pretty cool, right?” the renewable energy champion and CEO of Crystal Mountain Resort asked a leading question.
The car in front of us touched the brakes and we came a little too close to it, so Jim tapped a button that adjusted the navigation system to allow for five car lengths between us and the one ahead. The Tesla eased back a bit.
“As I was saying,” MacInnes continued, “Elon (Musk) and Tesla are building a machine to imitate a real driver. Eight cameras act as the car’s eyes. The central CPU (central processing unit) is like the brain.”
“And (the technology) will only get better.”
Jim and I were returning from Detroit where we had attended MEC4—The fourth annual Michigan Energy Conference: Powering the Future of Mobility on Sept. 25. In the motor city we absorbed hundreds of ideas and updates from mobility companies including General Motors, Nissan and Lyft; utility executives from DTE Energy; elected officials including Senator Gary Peters and representatives from the Department of Energy; and think tanks including Rocky Mountain Institute and the American Center for Mobility. The conference was amazing.
The future is coming fast in the world of mobility, which ranges from electric, to shared, to self-driving vehicles. Speaker after speaker at MEC4 noted that Michigan is leading the way. Last year, as the battle for energy legislation commanded the public spotlight, the state quietly passed four pieces of legislation that make Michigan a leader in hosting new mobility solutions. Sen. Peters said that he tries every chance he gets to convince Senate colleagues to try an autonomous vehicle. He hopes that will dispel the notion that this revolution is still years away. The future is now, Peters noted, and it’s happening here in Michigan.
One of the most exciting ideas at the MEC4 conference came from Kevin Bopp, vice president of parking operations at Bedrock Detroit—which is QuickenLoans founder Dan Gilbert’s real estate arm in Detroit. Bopp discussed plans to build a parking garage with ramps exclusively on the outside of the building so it could be repurposed into a commercial office space once parking decks are no longer needed. Bedrock also launched a pilot program earlier this month to send autonomous vehicles to pick up workers from locations around Detroit. Bopp encouraged us to picture a driverless car cruising next to Motown’s new Q Line.
As a conference attendee from the Grand Traverse region, I asked leaders from the Department of Energy, American Center for Mobility, and DTE if they had considered rural mobility. All noted that rural mobility had its own challenges—lack of density, long distances, and unpredictable obstacles like deer. But they also noted the tremendous potential for mobility in places like northern Michigan. Visionaries at MEC4 imagined autonomous vehicles picking up senior citizens, veterans, and low- and middle-income people who lack access to their own cars. Shuttles and delivery vehicles could get people to Munson Medical Center, bring medication to patients, or supply food to those who need it the most. Hurdles exist, but the possibilities are endless.
Another speaker noted that today’s 5 year old—coincidentally the age of my youngest son—will never have a driver’s license. Within a decade, mobility in America will be nothing like it is today. Millennials are already shunning car ownership for easier, cheaper mobility options. Transportation companies that ignore this do so at their peril.
As darkness descended on our drive home from Detroit, Tesla’s autopilot started to show signs of stress, so Jim turned off the autopilot and grabbed the wheel and pedals. As we pulled into Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, I saw my 2009 green Subaru sitting in the lot. I jumped in, started the internal combustion engine, and rolled away, rattling and roaring, guzzling gas, and emitting carbon into our pristine northern Michigan air. Some day I’m sure I’ll tell my grandkids about how we used to get from Point A to Point B in cars that we drive ourselves.
Dan Worth is the Clean Energy Policy Specialist at the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org