Talking Michigan Transportation

Wireless charging and yet more mobility innovations in Corktown

February 09, 2022 Michigan Department of Transportation Season 4 Episode 92
Talking Michigan Transportation
Wireless charging and yet more mobility innovations in Corktown
Show Notes Transcript

On this week’s edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, conversations about two significant announcements related to the future of mobility. 

First, Stefan Tongur, vice president and managing director of North America for Electreon, talks about his company’s contract with the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) to deploy wireless charging infrastructure on a public street. 

Later, Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, visits the podcast again and talks about a partnership announced last week between MDOT, the City of Detroit and other state and private entities for the Michigan Central Innovation District.

Tongur explains the significance of wireless charging and why it will be important as Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and state agencies support the auto industry’s rapid development of electric vehicles.

He says inductive charging has the potential to ease range anxiety for EV owners and reduce their cost of charging at home or at public charging stations. 

"It is a privilege to be working with the State of Michigan to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles in the Motor City," said Electreon CEO Oren Ezer in the news release announcing the partnership. "This is a monumental step toward expanding our U.S. presence and team.”

Pawl talks about how the Michigan Central Innovation District will be a hub for talent, mobility innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability, affordable housing, small business opportunities, and community engagement.

Podcast photo: Governor Gretchen Whitmer today joined Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Google Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to announce a new partnership to activate the Michigan Central Innovation District in an effort to attract and retain highly skilled talent and high-growth companies while supporting the development of neighboring neighborhoods. Photo courtesy of Gov. Whitmer's website.


Jeff Cranson: Welcome to the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson


Cranson: Today, we will be talking about some very exciting mobility leaders. Last week, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced that the Michigan Department of Transportation has awarded the nation's first wireless electric vehicle charging contract. This went to a firm called Electreon. To hear more about what that means and explain inductive charging, I will talk first with Stefan Tongur, who's a managing director for North America and the vice president at Electreon. Then later, I’ll speak with Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer and a regular guest on the podcast. He will put the inductive charging announcement in context and explain the significance of another announcement last week of a major agreement between the state of Michigan and Ford Motor Company and future plans at Michigan Central in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. So, Stefan, thanks again for being here. First, let's talk about yourself a little bit and your background and how Electreon came to be and what your role is with the company.

Stefan Tongur: Absolutely. Thanks for having me, Jeff. So, Electreon is a leading provider of wireless charging. It was created to enable vehicles to charge while in motion wirelessly. The reason is to make electrification of fleets and our vehicles, you know, when we go to scale much more feasible, more cost-effective, than has been the case. So, I think the vision is to be an open charging platform for any type of vehicle, any type of application, you know, while driving or standing still. And the good thing is that we are really proud coming here to Michigan with great partners because we have done a couple of pilots already in Europe. We also have a commercial deal already in Israel. We have pilots in Sweden, in Italy, in Germany, and Israel, and we've done this. And we have a lot of partnerships, global partners, so we've done it already, demonstrated technology. So, coming now to Michigan in this amazing atmosphere and energy of going into the future of mobility with EVs and electrification, all the things the great things that your companies are doing in Michigan with the public makes us proud. So, we're taking those experiences, bringing it here, making it as a test lab to bring and attract other partners as well as users to be able to scale up. And my role with the company is I’m the vice president, so, you know, helping to steer our market entry and partnerships for growth.

Cranson: And what's your background? How did you come to be interested in and gain the knowledge, I guess, about inductive charging?

Tongur: I'm kind of a leader in terms of electric roads and electric road system because I designed the concept, like, 2010. I wrote my PhD, probably the first in the world, on the electric road system.

Cranson: Wow.

Tongur: And for me, it's really interesting because I’m intrigued about how we change transportation systems. I always go back to how transportation was formed with the roads and the T ford and the standard oil. Since then, we've kind of had similar interfaces between vehicle, fuel, and roads, and now we're trying to do something which is a bit smarter and more cost effective when you go to electrification. And I’m intrigued by new business models, and how we can have not only technology because technology is an enabler, but you also need to have business models. That's how I really got taught about this kind of field of business, and I really enjoy creating this because you do it with other parties. You don't do it alone.

Cranson: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, what made the MDOT RFP, the Michigan proposal, attractive to your company?

Tongur: I think it's attractive because it has strategic vision. It has strategic vision of where it ends up, and where they see that wireless charging could fit. And it's part of a bigger narrative because it's not only focusing on one specific kind of pilot, but it's rather how can this electrification strategy be part of the bigger whole. I think everybody would recognize we're going to electrification of fleets, of all vehicles, and we're going to reach challenges when we do that, barriers, mainly because of the charging infrastructure. So, I think them placing this on a strategic level and also that we've found great mobility partners such as Ford, NextEnergy, DTE, Jacobs, so we have found a really strong ecosystem where we think we can attract OEMs and users, build on the vision of MDOT. We already have congresswoman Lawrence. She has a bill in congress as well supporting wireless charging, and we have the city and its support, and the whole Michigan Central project vision. For us, I think this is a great place to be and grow from. Does that make sense?

Cranson: Yes, it absolutely does. I'm glad you mentioned congresswoman Lawrence’s legislation. I’ll be sure to link to that because that is helpful and important. So, we like to think, you know, you hear it all the time, and it's a cliche that Michigan put the world on wheels, and they want to continue to be a leader in mobility, not just in traditional passenger vehicles, but in all ways. This certainly fits with that. You talked a little bit about what's going on in Europe and Israel, so where does Michigan compare and the work here to what's going on elsewhere in the U.S. and the world?

Tongur: I think the good thing is that, from a mission point of view, we are in a very good shape because we have demonstrated technology, so we're coming there a little bit more prepared. I was responsible in Sweden, so there it was more, you know, the stage going from R & D to the public world. I think now we are in a much better shape to make a business out of it, you know, grow the use cases, make it commercial. So, I think what you can expect in Michigan is more a collaborative perspective from our side. We want to work with the city and MDOT. We want to work with the OEMs. We want to work with engineering and the grid side and the communities because that's the only way we can make this a true success is if everybody feels there's a win-win-win. I think we are coming to this project with that notion already in mind. How can we grow? How can we make it? How is the business model going to work? So, the ecosystem, I think that's what I would point out is that it's a bit different. It's not just a pilot. I think everybody sees it as an open charging platform where we can use it to scale beyond the actual pilot.

Cranson: So, how important is climate to all of this? I mean, obviously, the weather in Israel is different than it is in the in Michigan, for sure. You've done some work in central European countries, but how did that contribute, I guess, to our attractiveness to really test this technology?

Tongur: So, my home country is Sweden. I just relocated a month ago from Sweden, and I was in Detroit on Friday. I had the opportunity and the pleasure to be there. It's pretty similar weather actually as it is in Sweden, and we also have the snow. We have demonstrated it works well. I think it's a good thing to demonstrate to get comfort for the agencies to make sure that they get comfort that, and the users, that it does support those kinds of weather conditions. And it not only supports, but it’s also an enabler because you don't need any physical connections of plugging in a vehicle under those conditions. You don't have the hazard, the mechanical issues, the wear and tear, so hopefully you see a lot of benefits with the technology in that condition. As you said, in Israel it's warmer, so we can do the southern California or California weather as well. So, I think that's a benefit to be able to demonstrate that.

Cranson: Okay, so beyond the obvious that there’s no need for wires to stop and plug in, you know, talk about the other benefits. Give me your, I guess, most optimistic, most bullish outlook prediction for where this is going and whether or not you really see inductive charging replacing wired charging someday, and that all of us with our electric vehicles will be able to charge while we're on the move.

Tongur: Absolutely. So, I mean, ultimately, I think with the strategies we have, where we need to go, there will be room for multiple technologies, right? But I think that our technology and wireless charging makes a lot of sense both today and for the future. And the reason is because we can charge—and we're looking at fleets initially because we can go to scale, they have huge challenges, and it makes more sense from a total cost of ownership point of view. We have predictable routes, etc. So. if you acknowledge those vehicles on fleets, you want to utilize them as much as possible, right? You want to make minimal capital investment in them. You want to operate have the operational benefits. We can charge both while standing still at, let's say, bus terminals or taxi queues or port queues or while driving in their operations. So, the big, let's say, vision is you can eliminate range anxiety. You can decrease the grid connections. There's going to be a lot of, you know, impact on the grid when we stop and charge a lot of vehicles at the same point of time because you need to fill up them very fast and on the short term. If we can spread that energy out, the demand over time and space, we can reduce the burden on the grid. We can shave the peaks, make it much more easy. We can decrease the needs of the big batteries and the minerals that goes with it. Ultimately, you can make it more cost efficient. So, I think what we are proposing is an alternative way to do large scale electrification and have open charging platform for all types of vehicles, not just for passenger cars, not just for trucks, for all types of vehicles in any application. So, there's a short-term strategy, and there's a long-term strategy. Ultimately, the goal is to reach 100 percent electrification of the fleets, or the vehicle fleet.

Cranson: Yeah, I think the prospect of eliminating range anxiety alone is going to be a huge motivator for the adoption and sales of all kinds of electric vehicles. One question that came up last week that seemed a little crazy, but, you know, it came up more than once on social media was whether or not anybody should be concerned about the charging infrastructure creating cancer-causing frequencies because you're driving over this and, obviously, it's emitting. So, what's your answer to that?

Tongur: So, it's a great question because on top of our minds is, of course, safety. Safety is first. Happily, you know, there are international standards, both for electromagnetic fields and electromagnetic compatibility. We have done a lot of different tests in Europe in our pilots, and we will continue to do those. They are very encouraging. For example, in Sweden, on the project I had, we had over seven agencies independent from each other. We also had independent research institute that did measurements, and they showed that we are way below the standard and meet them. So, I think we can give comfort that where we're coming from it's going to be 100 percent safe, secure. And we'll continue working with the agencies to make sure that is the case because that's, you know, the most important concern that we have that people are feeling this is benefiting their community and not the opposite.

Cranson: Well, that's great. I appreciate it. How would you put this—since you were there last week for the announcement—in, I guess, context, or kind of in concert, with the MOU that was announced between Ford and the State of Michigan.

Tongur: I think it was so exciting to be there. The energy that was in the room in about creating the future of mobility here in Michigan, in Detroit, and to be part of that was amazing. I mean, Bill Ford, I had the great pleasure to meet him and also the governor. And he mentioned the project, you know, that it's strategic, and it's important for the future of electrification of fleets and vehicles. So, from our side, to be there and also, it's not only about electric roads, but you also have movements coming with EVs and creating corridors for connecting automated vehicles, and to be part of part of that vision where you have both city, state, industry, and users and communities working together with that vision, I think I would put it very, very high. I think it was amazing to be part of. I’m very thankful for this opportunity that MDOT created for us.

Cranson: Oh, that's well said. I appreciate your enthusiasm. Thank you very much for taking time to talk about this, Stefan. It’s very helpful.

Tongur: The pleasure was mine. Thank you.

Cranson: And we’ll be back in just a minute to talk with Trevor Pawl, Michigan’s chief mobility officer, who will put further light on this from a Michigan perspective. Stay with us. We'll have more on the other side of this important message.

Narrator: [Car honking] Know before you go. Head on over to Mi Drive to check out the latest on road construction and possible delays along your route. For a detailed map, head over to

Cranson: Second segment today, we have the legend that is Trevor Pawl. Ladies and gentlemen, I tell you how busy he is and that he takes time to do this and how much I appreciate it. This is kind of a new intro, Trevor? Do you like it? I’m trying it out.

Trevor Pawl: [Laughing] I would stop the world for you, Jeff. You're my everything.

Cranson: Well, so, hey, you are a veteran of the podcast, and we talked about all the things you're doing with innovations and mobility. You got your fingers and a heck of a lot of things. And I just have tremendous admiration for your energy and the enthusiasm that you bring in promoting this, especially what we're doing in Michigan. But, you know, we never started with a little personal background. I know you attended Grand Valley on my side of the state, but what was your career path, and how did you get to be the chief mobility officer?

Pawl: [Laughing] You know, it's definitely not a straight line, and I definitely didn't know a job like this would ever exist. But what I can tell you is, you know, I used my 20s, once I graduated from Grand Valley, to build social networks that created professional opportunities. And I actually started in advertising, and part of what I was tasked with doing was, like, creating online games, so trying to get people to buy more breakfast at Wendy’s and trying to get people to buy fertilizer. And it was super interesting at the time, but it was also when Detroit was going through bankruptcy, and we were in the recession. It just felt like there should be more that I should be doing to sort of match the moment, and I found economic development. I didn't even know it was, like, a field of work you could do. When I was at the Detroit Regional Chamber, I started a program that matched suppliers, you know, like sparks-and-steel-helped-us-win-World-War-II type suppliers that may be lost in business with Ford or, you know, Chrysler at the time because of the recession and try to get them connected with, like, Boeing or Walmart or other different types of industries. That took off and I eventually ended up at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation running a statewide version of that program. Then I worked on, or ran, the state's International Trade program, and then I did some work in entrepreneurship. And then I ultimately ended up in mobility and led Planet M and now the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification as the chief mobility officer. So, that's how the resume reads, but, as you know, there's a lot between the lines and long nights and hard work and luck that, you know, get someone to where they're at.

Cranson: So, that's interesting about the ad classes. Because I was in journalism school, I took an ad class in college. And I remember we had a product that we had to come up with a campaign for, you know, a generic product that you don't necessarily identify with a brand. So, for us it was zucchini.

Pawl: [Laughing]

Cranson: My idea was Houdini zucchini. You put it on your table and watch it disappear.

Pawl: Yeah.

Cranson: The idea was to get kids to enjoy eating it, but it was kind of silly to invoke Houdini who wasn't really about disappearing.

Pawl: [Laughing] Yeah, I’ll tell you—I did romance novel promotions, like—

Cranson: Oh, wow.

Pawl: I mean, if you think about it, there was a point where I was selling romance novels and fertilizer. And I thought, “Well, maybe selling home would be a better solution.” So, I’m lucky to be able to be, like, you know, I sell Detroit. I sell Michigan. It's the best thing you could possibly sell.

Cranson: I think fertilizer and romance novel shows versatility.

Pawl: [Laughing] It does.

Cranson: Well, let's talk about the announcements. I had Stefan Tongur on to talk about Electreon and what they're doing. And boy, is he bullish on Michigan.

Pawl: Yeah, great.

Cranson: He spoke with this enthusiasm too. It was very interesting, but what followed that Electreon announcement was the announcement in Corktown on Friday. And I want to read a little bit from the governor's press release, “Governor Gretchen Whitmer today joined Ford Motor Co. Executive Chairman Bill Ford, Google Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to announce a new partnership to activate the Michigan Central Innovation District in an effort to attract and retain highly skilled talent and high-growth companies while supporting the development of neighboring neighborhoods. This new district, anchored by the iconic Michigan Central Train Station, will serve as a globally recognized hub for talent, mobility innovation, entrepreneurship, sustainability, affordable housing, small business opportunities and community engagement.” That is a heck of a lot. What's it all mean, Trevor?

Pawl: Well, it means that the train station, as it was promised in 2018, is coming along, and it's going to be a world class district that's focused on the future of mobility. We're at now a point during the construction process where we can begin to bring companies there to locate and run programs out of there and begin to activate new technologies that can make the surrounding communities, you know, get to work earlier, have new delivery options for food, and erase traditional barriers. And some of the technologies that can grow in the district can be scaled statewide and worldwide, and that's the whole goal. So, basically, the MOU, the partnership between the state, the city, and Ford, is to look holistically at the district and work together and put resources towards growing this thing as fast as we possibly can. And, you know, the promise was 5,000 jobs down there with 2,500 Ford and 2,500 non-Ford jobs, and the state and city are going to be focused on those 2,500 non-Ford jobs and getting companies that wouldn't normally consider Michigan to choose Michigan because we have the district and making sure that, you know, within the district there are opportunities to test new technologies. So, the city introduced a transportation innovation zone as part of the partnership, which is an area that will have streamlined permitting and make it real easy for startups and even established companies to test new technologies.

Cranson: What does this mean to somebody in in other parts of Michigan if you live in Menominee or Saginaw or Grand Rapids? Why should they care about what's going on in Corktown and with this development?

Pawl: Yeah, that's a good question. I think there's two ways to look at it. They should care because there's a good chance that their relative’s first footstep in Michigan is through Michigan Central Station in Corktown, Detroit. So, it's a very historic place that I think has been under appreciated for decades in terms of the role that is played in creating the Michigan that we know of today, not just southeast Michigan but northern Michigan, Benton Harbor, anywhere around the state that has Detroit roots. Secondly, it's a place that is going to draw high-tech talent, software engineers. I mean, part of the announcement on Friday was, you know, a Google and Ford partnership to grow the software engineers of tomorrow and co-develop new products and services right here in Detroit. And I think when you have a nucleus that's sort of in the heart of the automotive industry that we'll be pumping out new technologies that impact not only the vehicles but the infrastructure around it. People outside of southeast Michigan, I think, will begin to see some of those technologies end up in their communities making them safer, making them greener, making them more productive, solving systemic inequity. But then also some of these companies are going to love it here, and they're going to grow. And there could be other opportunities to expand around the state. Who knows the types of business models the entrepreneurs that are going to use this space in the hardware labs and, you know, the testing zones that the district will bring to build a company right here. Maybe the next billion-dollar mobility company will start right here in Michigan, and maybe they'll end up opening up an R & D center in Grand Rapids. There are all these different things that I think can happen to benefit not only the communities around the state but also our industries.

Cranson: You know, I can't get over Corktown every time I’m there, and I think about how we lamented, you know, Tiger stadium and thought it was just the death of that neighborhood. Now there's so much going on there. I mean, this is only the latest thing. Obviously, it's huge but already, yeah, the homesteaders, the cool bars and restaurants. I mean, it's just incredible.

Pawl: Yeah, the culinary scene is awesome. There's a new decently large hotel going up along Michigan Avenue right across from the old Tiger stadium. I think one of the cool aspects of the partnership that Ford and the city and the state have is it's going to focus on the future housing, affordable housing, and the services around those units. It's going to focus on the redesign, reimagination, reconstruction, whatever you want to call it at Michigan Avenue into one of the most progressive avenues in the country that, you know, is going to include autonomous vehicle driving lane, which would be first of its kind in the world. You think about the makeup of the neighborhoods not just Corktown, but even southwest Detroit and you extend into the downtown communities and the global diversity and the chance to learn from each other, the chance to, I think, do life in a walkable manner, which I think not too long-ago people would have said couldn't have been done in a place like that. Detroit’s coming back. The pandemic can't stop Detroit. You know that, Jeff.

Cranson: Right. Well, and taking advantage of what has really been excess capacity on Michigan Avenue for years and incorporating all those things that you're talking about. Not to mention, as you extend your conversation to southwest Detroit, what's going on with the Gordie Howe International Bridge, and what it's going to mean to, you know, Canadian tourists who want to ride their bikes or walk over, the opportunities, the community benefits. I mean, yeah, that whole neighborhood, defined largely, is going to be very different than it was 10 or 20 years ago, and it's all good. So, how does this effort, you know, the combined things that you're talking about with the Cavnue project and with Electreon and what Ford is doing compare to, you know, what kind of joint projects are going on in other states? I mean, are we really in the lead?

Pawl: I don't think that we can rest on our laurels. I’ve heard it said that automotive isn't our birthright and I agree. There are other cities that—especially I look at Miami. Miami is doing some really interesting things. Pittsburgh continues to do really interesting things and attract really interesting companies. You see some of the things happening around Austin, and some of the big investments they're seeing from some of the most exciting companies in the world from Apple to Tesla. There is competition out there. However, what I will say and why we've wanted to shift the narrative and do more futuristic first type stuff is because when you overlay it on top of one another—notice, like, the wireless charging quarter is going to be near the autonomous vehicle corridor, and eventually that's going to blend. You have the district there with new tech companies and new talent, you know, all the amenities you want to work, live, and play in an area. I think that there really truly isn't anything else out there that has those form factors together, overlaid so close. In doing these projects we weren't trying to mimic somewhere. We weren't trying to keep up with Seattle, or we weren't trying to keep up with Minneapolis or even, you know, out in Silicon Valley. It was uniquely Detroit and uniquely Michigan, all the things that we've done. And it's not just technology for technology's sake either to be, you know, a super expensive talent draw. I mean, these were services and things that if done right can be scaled and really help, you know, whether it's transit buses flip from diesel to electric or help improve, or I should say reduce, traffic accidents on the road. So, everything we're doing here is not only going to be a draw, I think, to attracting more activity, it's also going to make our communities better places to live. It's going to be done in ways that I think can shift the narrative with other cities. You’ve probably heard me say this before, but I think the first three-colored traffic signal was in Michigan, paved road, lane markings. I mean, those shifted the game for a lot of other cities, and now they're commodities around the world. We have a role here. It's not just about developing the vehicle anymore. Michigan also needs to be developing the environment around the vehicle, and we take that very seriously. Then I think you're seeing that by the speed, or the cadence, by which we're rolling out these different things.

Cranson: Yeah, that's really well said, and I think you make a good point that too often we do think about this as we're in competition with these other places and, you know, who can get ahead. It's all about scale and a unique fit to, you know, the needs and the ecosystem in that community, and that's what you're talking about. So, yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense. So, what can we expect next? Is there anything you can tease?

Pawl: No.

Cranson: You've got a lot of things going on, so what else?

Pawl: This is it, Jeff. That's everything. That's all I have for you.

Cranson: [Laughing]

Pawl: No, we do have some projects related to charging infrastructure that we're excited about. We have a super interesting partnership that—both of those projects are going to be outside of southeast Michigan, so we're excited to be doing some things around the state. We have the next round of our Michigan mobility funding platform, which identifies mobility barriers, or transportation barriers, in communities all over the state. And then we scour the globe to find the best solution providers and bring them to Michigan and roll their technology out and even help pay for it. So, we're going to be releasing that round. And what I love about that program, not to get to get dorky here, but we've given out I think, like, $1.2 million. So, we're not talking large amounts of money, but industry has followed us up with about $5.5 million in investment on their own. So, for every dollar government is putting down to get a mobility solution in the community, industry is putting down $465 dollars. That's a 465 percent return. That's wild! So, our goal will be to continue to grow that program because that's just a great return. That's how it should work with government seeding investment, not covering everything, you've got to be careful with taxpayer dollars, but seeding and inspiring industry to act, and then industry taking it from there. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Cranson: Yeah, it does. I can't wait till the next time we announce something and get a chance to talk again. Thanks, Trevor. Thanks for all you're doing and for your continued enthusiasm. I really appreciate the energy that you bring to this.

Pawl: And I got to say really quickly MDOT is killing it. I mean, these are MDOT projects, and it takes a special DOT to want to take on some of these projects that don't necessarily have a playbook to read. Like, we're writing a playbook from Cavnue to the wireless charging corridor to the UAS corridor, the aerial mobility corridor, the stuff happening at the bridge, and getting some new technologies to be a part of the bridge in concert with Ontario. I mean, MDOT, you guys are leading the way. I’m just trying to keep up.

Cranson: Yeah, well, what I’ve been impressed with my years in the department now is while most of the public thinks in terms of, you know, maintaining traffic and fixing potholes and just traditional roads and bridges and surface transportation, the level of innovation and the mindset really is a culture of, “Let's try new things. Let's see what we can do that maybe nobody else is doing.” And it's hard in government because you get a lot of criticism for taking a risk if it fails, but, as you know, the only way that you'll ever do anything is by taking some risks and being innovative.

Pawl: Yeah, that's it. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Next time I see you in person, Jeff, I’m going to give you a big bear hug.

Cranson: All right.

Pawl: I don't care where it is. I’m just going to give you a bear hug. Is that cool?

Cranson: That's when we'll take the podcast video, yeah.

Pawl: [Laughing] Okay, good deal. Thanks for having me.

Cranson: Thank you, Trevor.


Cranson: Thank you again for listening to this week's edition of the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I would like to thank Randy Debler and Corey Petee for engineering this week's podcast. To subscribe to show notes and more, go to Apple podcasts and search for Talking Michigan Transportation.