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Michigan Mobility Institute Executive Director Jessica Robinson discusses the future of transportation. (Photo by Chris Frost)
Monday, November 25, 2019

By Chris Frost



Oxnard-- The Disruption of Autonomous Cars, Traffic and Parking kicked off the City of Oxnard's lecture series in grand fashion at Oxnard College, Nov. 13, as attendees received a look into the not too distant future as it grapples with a changing world.


The featured speaker was Michigan Mobility Institute Executive Director Jessica Robinson. Co-Founder of the Detroit Mobility Lab, which focuses on building the mobility talent structure necessary that will shape the future in Detroit.


Oxnard City Manager Alex Nguyen thanked Oxnard College for hosting the event, along with the Ventura County Transportation Commission, and the Cities of Ventura and Thousand Oaks for sponsoring the evening with Oxnard.


"When I first came here, last year, I was told by people, not from here, but from surrounding communities, that Oxnard was not a speaker series town, and I don't believe that," he said. "Thank you for being here."


From there, he told the crowd that the future is here, whether we like it or not, and everyone needs to get onboard.


"Transportation, as we know it, is going through its most drastic transformation since the introduction of automobiles," he said. "That's happening, and it's either going to happen with us or to us."


At the local government level, he said every city needs to make significant decisions that will have a lasting impact for decades.  


"We run the risk of viewing our policies today though a human-driving, automobile-centric, traffic anxiety, congestion anxiety, parking anxiety lenses," he said. "That's all going to become obsolete soon."


Nguyen warns that if the population does not change its perspective, humanity may force millions of dollars of investment into the wrong places.


"Especially for private parking spaces," he said. "We're not thinking fast enough about the implications of the future of mobility for cities and counties affecting the sales tax base, changing land-use, and the changing economy for jobs."


Starting in 2021, Nguyen said the Michigan Mobility Institute would offer a master's degree in mobility, the first such program in the world.


"The objective is to build the mobility talent infrastructure necessary to handle what's coming," he said. 


Robinson said her job allows her to talk about the future of mobility around the world, which is inspiring.


She said when Nguyen reached out to her; she didn't know people would want solutions to all the problems facing cities as it looks toward the future of mobility.


"I want to start with autonomous vehicles but also put that into a context that it is one of many mobility technologies," she said. "It can be a force of change, a force of good, or it can drive our communities apart."


She admitted that she didn't have all the answers, but she did bring examples from other communities and how it works in 2019.


"When I travel to different communities, I like to start with how communities look at themselves," Robinson said. "I spent some time on your city's websites, and I am interested in how you talk about yourselves. What's important in a community."


She asked the elected officials what they want to contribute.


"As community members, what are you out to see," she asked. "I look for things that are similar, as well as the challenges we are all facing."


As she looked at Ventura County, she said there are more similarities than meets the eye.


She showed an image of the communities up the coast, as well as a city in Texas, because she wanted to bring the crowd a different perspective.


"You prioritize a high quality of life here," she said. "It's no surprise. I come to you from Michigan, where I had to escape a snowstorm to get here on time. I was walking around here in shorts this afternoon."


She applauded the incredible access to beaches in Ventura County, but she acknowledged that communities also prioritize open space.


"There's a strong emphasis on being a business-friendly community, both for large employers and retail sellers," she said. "This is a community that values diversity and all its factors, including the strong contribution of the Latin community. You're making investments in your communities, particularly your downtowns, and focusing on walking and being more pedestrian-friendly."


Most of the communities have thriving ports, she said, which connects Ventura County to the global trade markets.


With all that said, she still sees challenges ahead.


"Due to the range of rising costs, many of the people you call neighbors are facing housing instability, or potentially homelessness," she said. "Those in need of affordable housing are growing every day. Traffic and congestion are snarling our roads and make it a pain to get around."


Additionally, she said climate change, like severe weather or flooding, affects mobility.


"I believe that mobility is linked to fulfilling all these community priorities that you have amongst yourself," she said. "That plays out in a myriad of public policy choices around transportation and other areas, as well."


She touched on parking and said that policy choices dial back to density the walkability of neighborhoods and the housing choices people make.


"No set of cities is an island, and we exist in a regional context," she said. "Of course, Los Angeles is a giant contributing factor, and the whole Southern California coast is going through a tremendous change."


She presented five factors the Michigan Mobility Institute thinks about when defining mobility and said the first one is movement.


"In some cases, we are moving, and in other cases, transportation is happening to something else," she said. "Many that I work with on a day-to-day basis, who are engineers, they like to talk about mobility as moving from point A to point B. Sometimes, it is about efficiency, and that's where it stops."


Most of the engineers think it's a good starting place, but she added to the topic and focused on the movement of people, as it pertains to mobility.


"That's important, but mobility is much more," she said. "It's the movement of livestock and our food stock, but it's also about the energy grid and the increasing need for movement in our vehicles."


Additionally, Robinson said mobility involves moving information.


"In many cases, if you think about the movement of people over time, the reason we move around the world is to exchange information, to get married, and to exchange new ideas," she said. "That's a form of mobility, as well."


Her mobility has changed over time, and she said instead of going to the store, people choose to have items delivered to their homes.


"In my case, it's probably every day, which is a bit of a problem," she said. "It fundamentally changes how we interact with the world."


Robinson said it's more than online change, and mobility affects how systems come together.


"For us, we think about the disruptive technologies, but that's how it comes together in new business models," she said. "Yes, autonomous driving and things like electric eye vehicles and being connected are important, but the way they manifest in our environment creates new waves of value creation."  


She also sees a community impact and what mobility services bring where they are deployed.


"Affordability and equitable access become important, particularly among the policymakers that I work with," she said. 


Another resonant point Americans respond to is freedom, Robinson said, and the ability to get where they want to go and how they want to get there.


"Where does mobility occur," she asked. "Yes, we're a car-centered community, so a lot of times we think about mobility as cars. Certainly, in my adopted hometown of Detroit."


She showed the audience pictures of her moving around the world differently. She told the crowd that she is an avid Instagram user and getting a motorcycle endorsement so she could drive her scooter to her job at Ford Motors.


"I participated in a west coast road trip where I was in a convertible and saw some of the best things I have ever seen in my life," Robinson said. "I am an avid bicycle tourer, and that's given me an opportunity to see communities up close and see what they value firsthand."  


At the end of the day, Robinson said people are born to move, so freedom is essential.


"One of the biggest changes ahead is the arrival of autonomous, or self-driving technology," she said.  "Autonomous vehicles will change how we get around, but it's not going to happen overnight. We are at the moment in American that is known as Peak Auto. We are at the point where we have the maximum number of new vehicles sold every year in the United States."


In the future, she said the number of purchased vehicles would decline, according to every trend.


"One of the things we do as humans in cars is we continue to run each other over," she said. "That number continues to be high in communities around the country."


Fortunately,  she said the number of traffic accidents dropped in 2018, and the number of fatalities from vehicle crashes went down by 2 percent, but deaths for people who walk and take their bike went up.


Robinson hopes that autonomous vehicles will reduce the number of fatalities in the United States.


"These vehicles are computers on wheels with sophisticated sensors, and they are expensive to produce, build and design today," she said. "Initially, there was a whole lot of enthusiasm about their vehicles rolling off the production line in 2020; we're starting to see those companies walk back those numbers a little due to the cost and the hyper-focus on safety."


She pointed out the difference between level four and level five autonomous vehicles and said level four is a vehicle that can operate in a constrained environment.


"It can operate downtown or a college campus," she said. "Maybe, it can operate between neighborhoods. What it is not smart enough to do is operate in any environment at any time. Level five is the Holy Grail of autonomous. It can go anywhere at any time on its own."


Getting to level five is hard, she said, as well as expensive, so they're focusing on level four, which are low-speed shuttles in community centers.


"We also see a focus on autonomous driving in commercial vehicles, including heavy trucking on the freeways," she said. "We're starting to see ride-sharing companies bring them into their fleets to move people around in some of these neighborhoods by 2025."


Currently, automakers are working on turn assisted driving where there are warnings on the car when you try to change lanes where someone can be in the way or a steering wheel, or seat will vibrate if you start to drift.


"It's the same technology being put into the vehicles today that enables the carmakers to take down the cost of that development and also get us used to the development of those vehicles," she said. 


She encouraged all the elected officials to stay involved with the technology and understand what's real and what's hype.


"There is one view of the future world where many of these ride-sharing services become autonomous," she said. "That will make things easier and potentially safer. But it may start to pull ridership out of our public transit system and favor riders who can pay for these services, versus community members who can't."


Electrification is a significant trend, which started slowly, but is beginning to accelerate.


"Today, in the United States, we have one million electric vehicles on the road," Robinson said.  "When I was at Ford, I was part of their announcement to their commitment to electrification, I stood on stage and talked about an electric Mustang and an electric F150. I'm pretty sure no one believed me when I said we were going to launch those things. If you look at the news, Ford shared their fully electric Mustang last week, and it's still a pretty badass car."


With the growing electric vehicle market, she said deploying chargers becomes essential, along with their location.


"From a policy perspective, do we need our electric vehicle charging in our homes, where the vehicles we own can charge overnight, or do they need to be in a denser urban environment where a whole fleet of vehicles goes to charge during the day," she asked.


That will impact the power grid as this becomes prevalent.


"The shift to electrification has a profound implication on the gas tax," she said. "We're starting to see a number of communities, including here on the west coast, look at a vehicle mile travel tax instead of the gas tax."


This story will conclude in the Nov. 29 Tri County Sentry.

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