OPINION: Hey MDOT, we need public transit to Ann Arbor, not an ‘autonomous vehicle corridor’

Most experts agree that autonomous tech is still years away from widespread public use, so why are we spending millions to turn a highway into a testing facility, especially when we are already so far behind in road funding?

On Tuesday night, Detroit’s Mayor Mike Duggan gave his tenth state of the city address inside the nearly restored Michigan Central Station, where passengers once caught trains to all corners of the United States between 1914 to 1988. 

Much of his speech, like the new purpose of the old train station, centered around the automotive industry. 

For example, Duggan mentioned that Waymo is building autonomous Chevy Cruises at Factory One and plans to test them on an autonomous vehicle corridor between Ford’s new Corktown and Ann Arbor campus. 

This set off a series of re-Tweets calling out our state’s ability to throw funding at anything besides public transit, which received but a blip during the speech, leaving transit advocates frustrated as usual.

This new connected and automated vehicle (CAV) corridor was first announced in late 2020 and is headed up by Cavnue and MDOT,  who have been busy creating partnerships and raising funds to break ground this year. To date, they have raised $130 million. 

The premise of this CAV is to use I-94 as a testing ground for connected and autonomous vehicles by creating a dedicated fourth lane with tech-enabled infrastructure. According to Cavnue’s website, the CAV will help reduce congestion, improve travel times, and be used by private and public vehicles, including buses. 

This sounds similar to the Flex lanes on US-23 and under construction on I-96, minus the tech, except that anyone is allowed to use flex lanes during peak hours. To many transit advocates, the focus on this autonomous corridor is disappointing, especially because they have been trying to restart a commuter train to connect Detroit and Ann Arbor for over a decade. 

Trains have connected Detroit and Ann Arbor since 1839 and still do today via Amtrak’s Wolverine route between Detroit and Chicago, which runs three times daily. But Detroit to Ann Arbor commuter rail service, which ran more frequently, ended in 1984. 

In 2009, SEMCOG commissioned a study to determine the feasibility of a new commuter route connecting the two cities, and the findings were positive. Michigan even went as far as to lease and refurbish rail cars and do test runs

The Regional Transit Authority was formed in 2012, and the commuter rail plan was adopted into the 2016 RTA master plan, but a 1% no vote kept it from happening. 

In 2019, the RTA received grant funding to start a commuter bus route between Detroit and Ann Arbor and despite a delay due to COVID, the D2A2 bus recently celebrated a record month of ridership. The RTA will also use a new grant to establish a highway route between downtown Detroit and Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW), slated to start by the end of 2023. 

Autonomous vehicles, which were supposed to be widespread by now, are still years away from mass adoption. Some say it is time for a reality check on Michigan’s autonomous vehicles’ future and that they may never be ready for widespread use. Tesla has been testing their full self-driving systems on public roads, sometimes with fatal results, leading to a pause on their full self-driving beta feature. Argo, a tech company working with Ford and Volkswagen on AVs, called it quits in 2022 and will try again. Amazon is taking a stab at the autonomous taxi market, and Waymo Cruises have been testing in San Francisco with mixed results. 

Most experts agree that the tech is still years away from widespread public use, so why are we spending millions to turn a highway into a testing facility, especially when we are already so far behind in road funding?

One reason is to keep jobs in Michigan close to the suppliers. Michigan has 26 OEMs and 96 of the top 100 global automotive suppliers with a presence in our state. It is one thing to test cars out in San Francisco or on a closed track like Mcity but putting them on a highway in Michigan is next level. 

Michigan has shown renewed vigor in keeping the automotive industry thriving through massive handouts called the SOAR fund. There are billions of dollars available for research and development of connected and autonomous vehicles, and automakers aren’t passing up the chance to get that funding. While CAV companies like to talk a lot about mobility and equity, it is unclear how AVs stand to help the general public at a meaningful level. 

While there is a place in the mobility ecosystem for tech-assisted driving, it stands to complement or build upon a public transit system, not replace it. You can’t solve mobility for everyone with technology alone. Our region needs a robust transit system unless it plans to replace 100,000 daily bus rides with 25,000 autonomous vehicles. Adding that many vehicles to our roads, self-driven or manually driven, would cause worse congestion than we have today.

To me, the biggest beneficiaries of these new “autonomous vehicle” lanes will not be dozens of private AV owners but the thousands of RTA bus riders who will ride the D2A2 and Airport Shuttles – driven by actual drivers –  in these dedicated lanes.


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