Michigan Is Claiming a Stake in Mobility’s Future

For Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl, the state’s success depends on coordinating resources and forging partnerships with businesses.

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Trevor Pawl sees the next decade as a turning point for mobility: By 2030, electric vehicles will outsell internal combustion vehicles and software will compose more than 50 percent of vehicle values. Pawl, Michigan’s first Chief Mobility Officer and head of the state’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, wants the state to play a key role in new mobility.

The office’s creation in July was timely. Michigan, the old guard of American mobility, faces unparalleled disruption as COVID-19 transforms how and why people move while many Silicon Valley tech firms compete in the industry with automated, ride-share, and high-speed metro technology.

Pawl knows the state’s challenges well. He’s a Michigan native, lives in the Motor City, and attended the in-state schools Grand Valley State University and the University of Detroit Mercy.

Pawl focuses on the state’s mobility infrastructure and workforce retention and retraining initiatives. For Pawl, the key to success is twofold: Coordinating government departments and agencies while fostering public-private partnerships.

“Think of it like the rings of a tree,” Pawl says. “We’re starting with the inner ring and moving outward to achieve buy-in.” It’s a model that Pawl believes other states and cities can follow.

What isn’t as easily replicable is the state’s deep-seated relationship with some of mobility’s heavy hitters. Detroit, the cradle of many American automotive giants, provides the state with unique opportunities to engage in public-private partnerships. That dynamic has borne fruit: Last August, Michigan announced a joint endeavor with automotive, tech, and academic organizations to build an autonomous vehicle corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor, where the University of Michigan is located.  

Pawl recently spoke with Moe Kelley, the Oliver Wyman Forum’s mobility lead, and Joern Buss, a partner in Oliver Wyman’s global automotive practice in Detroit.

You are trying to put Michigan at the forefront of the transition to electric and autonomous vehicles. What do you see as the biggest hurdle to driving these solutions forward? And what’s missing that can take your plans one step forward?

This is going to sound insanely obvious, but the world is on fire. That’s the biggest hurdle. However, in this state, there’s an acute desire to move the future of mobility forward. But when you’re seeing government budgets being cut by 30 percent across the board, and you’re seeing a true competition for resources – whether it’s on the personal protective equipment front or on small business relief – what do you choose? Do you reinvent the way city sidewalks help move people through or do you set aside a bunch of money for small businesses so they can stick around another four months longer?

What’s still missing is a game-breaking thing would be a rural mobility solution – whether that’s wireless connectivity or something else that can reinvent the way folks receive their goods, get to their doctors’ appointments, get to the grocery store, or just get to a city for a job a bit faster. I think the future of mobility needs to be rooted not just in our urban areas but in our rural areas. 

How do you see the role in attracting or developing the talent required for these new technologies to Michigan?

The shift to autonomous and electrified transportation will have significant impact on the traditional auto workforce. The public and private sectors and academia – from vocational to higher-ed – must work together to ensure the workforce is aligned around the future of mobility. Research by the Michigan Mobility Institute concluded that, nationally, the mobility industry will hire 45,000 new people with computer-related engineering skills by 2030. Michigan’s going to need about 12,000 of those to retain its position as a global mobility leader. For us, it starts with retaining more of our homegrown talent and building skills-based and stackable credentialing programs in fields like software engineering and robotics to ensure people have the skills they need to thrive in the new mobility economy.

Automation will cause some changes in industries relevant to mobility, including manufacturing. But the simultaneous trends toward autonomous and electric vehicles and micromobility will create new – and likely higher-paying – jobs. Michigan is committed to reskilling and retraining programs to ensure our workforce is positioned to benefit from the shift toward digital mobility.

What key areas of infrastructure do you think require a lot of investment to create this future world of mobility?

We believe the enabling infrastructure – both physical and digital – is going to be a core focus in the next few years and we think public-private partnerships are going to be foundational to enable the rapid testing, deployment, and scaling of new technologies and infrastructure systems.

Shipping innovations are changing how smart infrastructure impacts state economies, from smart customs ports and autonomous freight solutions to last-mile delivery. The future of mobility is very much tied to the movement of goods. Especially in a post-pandemic world where supply chains around the world are regionalizing.

A single global shipment can involve 30 different organizations and 200 interactions, yet there are an estimated 20 billion miles of unused capacity in the trucking industry each year. Michigan must leverage new autonomous, shared, and connected technologies to capture more market within this value chain. We see a huge opportunity to partner around future-proofed, technology-enabled infrastructure. This is a huge part of our new office’s strategy.

More systematized trucking is a good bet for government. Data from corridors can provide accuracy on commerce passing through. This is a more conservative environment for placing investments.

We’ve seen that with other initiatives around the world, a state is not an island — especially with modern technologies. What are you hoping for Michigan to establish when it comes to these public-private partnerships? How easy is it to convince those companies to work with you guys?

Collaboration between the public and private sector is more critical than ever. A state that leverages public investment to spark private investment will move faster, build deeper partnerships, and have a greater global impact.

At the beginning of 2019, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and other state leaders identified the corridor between Detroit and Ann Arbor as one of the most strategic and busiest in the state, and as one that could define the future of mobility – not just for the Midwest, but for the world given the assets that we have. We have a major global airport near the University of Michigan, a significant university town in Ann Arbor, and of course Detroit, a major global hub for the automotive and mobility industry. 

The partners involved in this project could’ve gone to Long Beach, California, if they wanted density. What they saw was the unique environment of public-private partnerships that have been stitched together over the last decade. That’s what was able to get us this work. They could’ve gone anywhere else in the world. 

Economic returns were not the primary driver for our partners. It was about precedent setting and creating a replicable playbook with a strong public sector partner that, over time, can be scaled to other projects around the world.

And it’s not just about tech for tech’s sake. The idea here is to look at the existing transportation systems that get people around and create equity or inequity, and use this new technology to make them better.