On this week’s Talking Michigan Transportation podcast, a conversation with Michigan’s chief mobility officer, Trevor Pawl, about a major announcement Thursday to help with one transportation challenge we all experience: finding a parking space.
Speaking at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars Thursday, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer offered details on a smart-parking lab initiative, a collaboration with Ford, Bedrock, the American Center for Mobility, and Bosch to test advanced technologies in parking, logistics and electrical vehicle charging.
In 2018, research compiled by Senseable City Lab at MIT and Allianz quantified what parking needs would be in an era of automated vehicles.
Today’s news builds on a recent announcement of Michigan Strategic Fund support for Ford’s new global battery center of excellence, securing its location in Romulus and helping to drive momentum as the state continues to emerge as an electric vehicle R&D and manufacturing leader.
Ford is also transforming the historic Michigan Central Station and several adjacent properties in Detroit's Corktown neighborhood into an innovation district and open platform to redefine the future of transportation and pave the way for the connected, autonomous and electrified world ahead.
Also discussed: President Biden on Thursday unveiled a plan to make U.S. cars and light trucks more fuel efficient and to begin a shift to electric vehicles over the coming decade.
Jeff Cranson: Hello. This is the Talking Michigan Transportation podcast. I'm Jeff Cranson, director of communications at the Michigan Department of Transportation.
Cranson: This week, we're talking about what is a pretty bold announcement today concerning something that is a challenge and frustration to all of us, and that's parking and how to make it easier and even more so, if you can park and charge your EV at the same time.
Cranson: So, once again, I am pleased to have with me Trevor Pawl, who is Michigan’s chief mobility officer and a repeat appearance on the podcast. So, Trevor, thank you for taking time to do this.
Trevor Pawl: It is great to be here. You look good. You look healthy. This is the first one we've done in person.
Cranson: That's right. We are here at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminar in Traverse City and seeing each other in person.
Pawl: You’ve got like a nice golden-brown tan.
Cranson: [Laughing] I don't know why that would be. Maybe too much time on the trails - who knows.
Cranson: Back in the office, out of the sun.
Pawl: Yeah, right.
Cranson: Well, so tell us about today's announcement that the governor—you set it up and then the governor gave some details, and, you know, it seemed to go over well with the crowd.
Pawl: So, this is really cool, and it's actually a first in the nation. It's a smart parking lab that is focused on the future of immobility.
Pawl: Immobility. You know, people don't realize that a car typically is only moving about five percent of the time. What do you do with the 95%? Well, we think there's just a better way, I mean, you know, whether it's with how you charge your vehicle, even the services that can be done to your vehicle like running proactive diagnostics, you think about, you know, the things that can be done for the paratransit community, various communities. So, this lab is going to explore all those things including revenue models for cities, right?
Cranson: So, both those things are really Interesting. Talk first about what you think it could mean to mobility for people with disabilities.
Pawl: Yeah, so, I think I’ll tackle it from two angles. The first is I think it's an opportunity for industry to hear a bit more about barriers that certain communities face. Then actually providing sort of this playground, or this place, to try stuff, to install new sorts of hardware and then integrate that with software that can help us make smarter design decisions, smarter implementation decisions, so there's that angle of it.
Cranson: That's why it's a lab.
Pawl: Yeah, no, you're right. Also, I think it can be a place where you can identify the problems. It's not just about sort of taking a list of problems and working through them checkbox by checkbox. It's also about trying some different things hoping to find the true issue. So, for a group like those that sort of face, you know, what happens in paratransit every single day, this is a dedicated resource that's going to work for them as well as real estate innovators, startups, mobility pioneers. What I love about this is, yeah, it's Ford, yeah, it's Enterprise Rent-A-Car, American Center for Mobility is involved but so is bedrock, right, from the Rocket Family of Companies.
Cranson: Why is that particularly interesting to you?
Pawl: Because they're not auto, but they understand the convergence of industries that we're seeing.
Cranson: Especially parking.
Pawl: 100-percent and, you know, parking is not—it's in Detroit, but we could have easily had this in Grand Rapids with some of the parking challenges that Grand Rapids has or even some of these small towns, especially when it's peak season.
Cranson: Yeah, like, up north.
Pawl: Yeah, yeah. So, it's as much about finding new technologies as is about okay, like, how do we actually make this work in an affordable, efficient way, and also, how do we handle the maintenance? I mean, there's all these issues with parking spots and, frankly, again, 95% of the future of mobility is spent not moving at all.
Cranson: Well, and we've talked about that before in terms of car sharing and what, you know, the future of automobiles is, and that's one of the reasons they say that this car could be busy all day long.
Pawl: Well, finding—so the research shows that finding parking in a city causes 30% of a city's congestion and emissions.
Cranson: Yeah, huge environmental impact.
Pawl: So, if you eliminate the second, third, fourth, and fifth time someone goes around the block and you actually make parking something people enjoy, like, you know, you get out of your car you go on with your day and the car parked safely and efficiently, parking all of a sudden can become something that relieves pollution, relieves anxiety, doesn't create it. So, I know that sometimes you can get kind of technical with new technologies with the word smart at the beginning of them, but I think everyone can get around this idea that parking is broken, someone needs to fix it.
Pawl: You know?
Cranson: So, you're the chief immobility officer now?
Pawl: Yeah, I am.
Cranson: Well, talk about the other aspects of it and why you think Ford and Bosch and Enterprise, and the American Center for Mobility and Bedrock could all get behind this. What's the common goal this year?
Pawl: Yeah, well, I mean, with Ford and Bosch it's clear that, you know, there's a great relationship already in place within the supply chain. It's clear that there's more competition than ever and, you know, but finding new lines of business to help a customer will benefit that supply chain. You think about Bedrock, it's like, you know, yeah, sure, it's about innovation, but it's also very much about like making sure Detroit is in a pole position for mobility leadership and that benefits any company that calls Detroit home. Bedrock sees that more than most and is willing to put their money where their mouth is in that commitment. I've been so impressed with Rocket and just their ability to sort of adapt with the market and add value with whatever it is. It could be, like, they're all software, but it could be like something with hardware that they come in and say, “You know what, we're going to help you on that pitch to that company try to get them here.”
Pawl: And that's the model. That's public private—
Cranson: You don't see this just from a professional standpoint, you see it from a personal standpoint as somebody who's homesteading in downtown Detroit.
Pawl: Yeah, I’m a Brush Park guy at the moment, and you're absolutely right. I mean, to see what they've done in and around Campus Martius has been pretty special.
Cranson: Yeah, well, as you look to the future, I mean, what would be your goal? What's your most optimistic view a year, two years, three years from now from this lab?
Pawl: For parking?
Pawl: I would like to see five plus, maybe more, parking technologies become scalable, newsworthy, not just in America, or North America, but across the world. It's clear, like, the trajectory, the line, can trace back to Detroit. Similarly, I’ve told this story, and I know you hear it, but, you know, we're in this 30-year window where I believe that the next century of transportation is going to be decided. Similar to how like lane markings were, you know, just a milk truck on Woodward Avenue that was leaking, and the right road engineer saw that and applied it. Same with three-color traffic signals, concrete, I mean, all these things seem monotonous now, but back in the day they were truly innovative. Now there's a bunch more noise in the market, so you need to have these dedicated resources that can focus on what the next milk truck is or, you know, what the next three-color signal is. Transportation so much more complicated, so it's not as easy to just have a mobility lab. Sometimes you need to focus on a particular aspect and go hard, and that's what we're doing here.
Cranson: Well, it was clear today, as you set up the announcement for the governor, that you were very enthusiastic about this. I think it is one of those things that we are frustrated in the moment, but we don't think about it long term, like, “Could I solve this whole parking thing and at the same time deliver a win for the environment?” And, you know—
Cranson: That's what you're talking about here.
Pawl: You know and doing a deep dive with these companies on parking, I had no idea the environmental impact. I knew about congestion. I knew about the annoyance, but the environmental impact and, frankly, what you can do with a parking spot like wireless charging. You think about micro mobility and even you think about the usage of the space, so for every vehicle, every car, in the U.S. guess how many parking spots there are for that car – eight. So, we have like more than two billion parking spots and literally each car in the US could always have at least eight open.
Cranson: So, is this kind of like Springsteen’s “57 Channels?”
Pawl: We have enough parking –
Cranson: Eight spaces for every car but we can't find a parking space.
Pawl: We have enough parking spaces to fill West Virginia, which is a problem. That's an urban design thing that I think we need to solve because by its nature, parking lots can pull us apart. It can make a community less dense. However, it starts with being smart about each and every spot and being more productive. So, you think about ways to take a parking garage or take, you know, a parking lot and turn it into this micro mobility hub, right, where, you know, last mile packages can be delivered. You think about delivery bikes, you know, there's just all these other B2B aspects of parking, this real estate, that can be used. I mean, these should be hubs. These just shouldn't be slates of concrete.
Cranson: Well, I think in issuing the formal announcement after the governor spoke, the news release pointed out that this builds on last week's announcement from the MSF, the Strategic Fund, that they were going to support Ford and their new global battery center. So, talk about how those things kind of fit together.
Pawl: Yeah, well, that's a big deal. It's a signaling moment. They could have went anywhere else in the world, but they continued to choose Michigan. I think that builds on a couple of other announcements that maybe, you know, none of the fanfare of Ion Park, but Magna chose St. Claire County, for example, for 300 jobs that focus on battery enclosures for the new electric Hummer. An emerging company out of Boston, XL Fleet, chose Wixom for their sort of advanced Fleet Electrification Center. So, I think what you're seeing, a lot of times the news will cover the home team.
Pawl: You know, sometimes we call them, like Ford when they make a big announcement, but I think what that big announcement allows us to do is look in the rear mirror and say, “Wow, what just happened last three or four months? We had a Boston company, we had, you know, Magna continue to invest here.” You know, like we've seen some other startup activity. It's just like those moments allow us to look back and say, “Wow, no, we're definitely a global player. We're definitely still moving the needle as a region.”
Cranson: So, do you feel like we're over hyping that to say that, I mean, to talk about Michigan and recovering its status as the, you know, auto capital of the world?
Pawl: Oh, Detroit never left. I mean, we've always been the automotive capital. I think that we're an easy target and we've had our issues, but the truth is when you look at our cluster, we still have more engineers per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. 96 of the top 100 global suppliers have a presence in Michigan Just in the last couple years, we've seen—actually in the last decade, we've had exponentially more automotive manufacturing investment than any other region in North America, that includes the entire country of Canada and Mexico. I mean, so, we are in prime position here for the next decade, but we can't kid ourselves. We're up here at the Center for Automotive Research Management Briefing Seminars, and they recently put out a report that said that over 300 Michigan companies have a high likelihood of being impacted by the transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to battery electric, 60% in a negative way. So, I mean, we need to realize that automotive isn't our birth right. Chris Thomas, who's a venture capitalist in Detroit, has always said that and I tend to believe it. I think that we need to make sure that we're acting like we're still trying to get our first assembly plant. We need to, you know, continue to make automotive—yeah, sure, one industry in Michigan, yeah, sure, the first among equals, but also make sure that we are continuing to act global and growing that industry.
Cranson: So, having said all that and seeing what you're seeing, did you think, even a few years ago, I mean, you were doing Planet M, you were kind of the chief spokesperson, sales person for Michigan in that job and now, as chief mobility officer, you're expanding on that role, but is this happening even more exponentially than you expected, I mean, what the big automakers are doing with electric vehicles and what the President announced today and where we’re going?
Cranson: Is this just taking off and, I mean, how long before we're all driving EVs?
Pawl: Well, we’ve got to reduce range anxiety. I mean, you talk to someone even in a place like San Francisco, I was just talking to an automotive CEO, and he was like, “You know, we just rented an EV out in San Francisco, and we were driving around and just to see what it was like, you know, admittedly, once that battery—the green started to slip away a little bit we got concerned. We ended up having to sit in a parking garage for 20 minutes just waiting, you know.” He's kind of laughed about it, but I mean imagine if you were, you know, on your way up north on I-75 and you didn't have that luxury of being in a big city. I think there's a real concern. I was talking to someone today at the hotel who was like, “I had to wake up at 6:30 in the morning to charge my car to make sure that it was charged.” Even the moderator on one of the panels I heard had to start the panel by saying, “If you are charging a vehicle and you're done or you're close to being done—"
Cranson: Clear the space.
Pawl: “Can you please move your vehicle.” You know, it's a whole new language that we're going to have to learn, so there's a long way to go. I don't think we're all going to be driving EVs. I think fuel cell is going to be prominent. I actually think carbon capture will be. I don't think we're done with ICE. I think if you can find a way to make ICE a lot cleaner through carbon capture, innovation, hardware you can put on your vehicle that captures the carbon, carbon stations situated at gas stations where you can drop the carbon off, and it can be used for advanced materials. The fleet operator makes money, the gas station or landowner makes money where the station is, and there are revenue channels, too, that can be explored there.
Cranson: But during this period, the things that we're starting to do as a state, you know, with Charge Up Michigan and those things.
Pawl: Oh, yeah. At Charge Up Michigan we got—
Cranson: I mean, the President announced today. I mean, we've got to—
Pawl: Yeah, you're right, you mentioned the President. So, yes, what I love about the announcement today and what I love about, you know, Michigan’s commitments have a worry-free EV network to travel by 2030 is the level of urgency. Even, you know, setting a national goal creates this level playing field, or forces the hand it. It creates this invisible hand of urgency where if you were holding on making an investment on, you know, multi-unit dwelling chargers, or policy around multi-unit dwellings, or EV chargers, or you were waiting 25, 26 to really dive deep into, you know, faster, like, no, now you have to reassess your timelines.
Pawl: So, that part of it's pretty exciting, but I will say, like, you know, the way that it's set up 27, 28, 29, 30 those years leading up to the—I mean, you're going to see these commitments begin to be back. They're going to be backloaded, and it's going to be a couple of interesting years to see if we can keep our word nationally and the industry can keep our word on what we're trying to do. What I do know is if it's not 2030 it'd be 2032, 2035.
Cranson: It's coming.
Pawl: It's coming, like, you know, GM is going to be a zero-emission company, all zero emission vehicles by 2035, Ford carbon neutral by 2050, if not sooner, Volvo I think is 2025. So, I mean it's going to happen. It's just, you know, you needed a moment for the President and his administration to get up and say, “No ifs, ands, or buts about it, this is where we're going.”
Cranson: I can't think of a better time with fires raging in the northwest part of our country and floods in central Europe and, you know, heavy rainfall like we've never seen. What used to be 500-year events now happening every few months in southeast Michigan.
Cranson: It's, you know, what happened in Midland last year, I mean, you can't overstate that something's going on with the climate. Doing what you're talking about, what the automakers are committed to, as humans, I don't know what better thing we could do to try to reverse that.
Pawl: Well, even here in Traverse City, like, right now you go out at sunset and it's beautiful, but then you get this really eerie sense that it's only beautiful because the western wildfire smoke is now over you.
Pawl: And the sun is eerily orange, and you realize something is terribly wrong, and that we might be staring at the beginning of the challenge of our lifetime.
Cranson: Yeah, very well said.
Cranson: All right, as always, I appreciate your enthusiasm and your optimism, even if that last part was a little down.
Pawl: I attended the Cranson School of Communications, so I’m glad my degree is paying off.
Cranson: [Laughing] Thank you, Trevor.
Pawl: All right. I’ll talk to you later.
Cranson: Appreciate it.
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.