The Autonomous Report: Toronto attracts investment; Detroit attracts high-tech talent

Detroit and Michigan are attracing more high-tech talent, and automakers plans show it. Ford is currently overhauling its Dearborn campus to add green space, walking trails and a cylindrical glass tower dubbed the “Sustainability Showcase.”

By Jeff Sanford

Toronto, Ontario — May 14, 2017 — In this week’s Autonomous Report, we look into the latest autonomous vehicle (AV) investment to hit Toronto, the beginnings of Detroit’s high-tech rebound, how one writer predicts a future of automated onsite repairs and much, much more!

– The biggest news in the Canadian autonomous vehicle (AV) space this week has to be the announcement that Sidewalk Labs has “applied to develop a 12-acre strip in downtown Toronto.” Sidewalk Labs is an “urban innovation” company owned by one of the founders of Google. According to a report, “Last year, the company began talking openly about building a theoretical urban zone ‘from the internet up’ … In a speech last week at the Smart Cities NYC conference, Sidewalk Labs Chief Executive Officer Dan Doctoroff said the firm is exploring development of a ‘large-scale district’.”

By building digital connectivity technologies into the basic infrastructure in an area will provide companies with a place to test small delivery robot AVs. Self-driving cars connected by 5G and to local maps and clients can become the norm, and studied.

The announcement comes in the wake of more AV news centered on Toronto. Uber is launching a self-driving testing centre in the city, as reported by Collision Repair magazine, and the Toronto Star recently reported on The Vector Institute, which will receive funding from the federal government’s, “… newly announced $125-million Pan-Canadian Artificial Intelligence Strategy.” Ford recently picked up 400 employees from BlackBerry to develop wireless technology in Ottawa. The Canadian AV sector is coming into focus.

– The merging of Silicon Valley tech with the auto industry of Detroit is an epic business story. There is a competition emerging between the two regions over access to talent. Bloomberg tells the story of a recent graduate, Victoria Schein, a 23-year-old software engineer who “has filed for 14 patents and received nine as part of Ford’s driverless-vehicle research team.”

The idea that Detroit would be attracting emerging tech superstars would have been considered absurd just a few years ago. But the city appears to be on the rebound: “[As] US automakers race companies such as Apple, Uber and Google’s Waymo to automate driving, most of the top talent continues to cluster out west, where there’s better pay and weather, among other things. Detroit’s big three and other car companies have about 5,000 US job openings in software and electronics product development, representing about a third of their unfilled positions, estimates consultant AlixPartners … What Detroit has going for it is the ability to get innovative cars on the road relatively quickly. That can be appealing for young auto-techies bent on changing the world. Then there’s the cost of living, dirt cheap in Detroit compared with the Valley, along with modern urban lofts sprouting among the gritty downtown streets … General Motors Co. is spending $1 billion renovating its 60-year-old Tech Center in a northern suburb. Ford is overhauling its 1950s-era Dearborn campus to add green space, walking trails and eco-friendly designs … The first phase of Ford’s facelift involved taking over an entire wing of an aging shopping mall in its hometown. Inside a former Lord & Taylor department store, digital engineers work in collaborative spaces. Amenities include rows of plug-in, stand-up hoteling stations.” The post-industrial, AI-led future of Detroit is emerging.

– For his part, Sergio Marchionne, CEO of Fiat Chrysler, is having none of it. He thinks that, “trying to replicate Silicon Valley in Detroit is a fool’s errand.” Fiat Chrysler has formed a partnership with Waymo to convert Chrysler Pacifica minivans into robot taxis according to a Bloomberg story. “I have no intention of re-creating Silicon Valley in Michigan,” Marchionne is quoted as saying. “To develop it internally and try to replace the creativity and level of capital that’s being attracted by Silicon Valley” would send “any car company into bankruptcy,” he said. We’ll see who’s right in the years to come.

– Self-driving cars are just one aspect of what many are calling “the second industrial revolution.” A story on Tech News Week tried to predict some of the coming changes. “With the combination of cars with massive numbers of sensors (including cameras), centralized tracking, and near constant oversight, traffic cops should become redundant. Both on-car and in- street tracking systems will report folks who are misbehaving in real time, and folks who are behaving badly and overriding or not using self-driving will receive tickets in the mail or have law enforcement waiting for them at their next stop or home,” according to the writer. 

We’ll also see the rise of automated onsite car repair in the coming AV future. “Given that many of these cars will be operating 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, the likelihood of an on-road failure will go up, needing a service that can repair the autonomous car where it failed … Much like support for other technology products is outsourced to firms specializing in that service, this too could lend itself to service companies that can span service providers, allowing higher economies of scale, better coverage and lower costs … The easiest system would be an automated service that retrieved the car and delivered it to a regionalized repair depot. You wouldn’t be abandoned — a replacement car likely would pick you up long before the repair vehicle arrived. In fact, given an early warning, it likely would be dispatched before you were stuck.”

As for repair, the prognosticator had this to say: “ … there likely will be road damage and repair needs, but they likely will be done by large shops designed to handle Uber-level volumes, or an automated centralized service that probably could do both kinds of repairs in-house … To keep cost down, low-cost replicable body panels and Gorilla Glass likely would reduce dramatically both the need for and cost of repairs.”

– A recent conference on AVs in Toronto included a plenary session on the subject of AVs and Social Inclusion. One of the promises of AVs is that they will allow whole new swathes of the population to become mobile. Older people, those with disabilities and children will be able to transport themselves with Level Five fully self-driving vehicles. Experts predict a large increase in the number of people on the road in the coming AV world.

One of the panelists for the session was Dr. Jan Miller Polgar, a Professor and Acting Director in the School of Occupational Therapy at Western University. Polgar has led “many research projects involving mobility related technology, vehicular technology that supports safe transportation of older adults and adults with disabilities, driver retraining, and community mobility.” At the conference she talked about the possibility of improved mobility for disabled people. “The wheelchair transportation network needs to be disrupted … I think we can have a do-over on that [in the AV world].” She went on to note that one of the things that services like Uber have provided is a source of income for those on the margins.”For those who are at a transition point in life this is a way to find employment. Despite the imperfect system … We all face transitions … All the people who are depending on the flexible economy … parents and caregivers are using these systems to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis,” said Polgar. “Community mobility is a right, not a privilege. Driving is a privilege, not a right. Individuals who are older and are able to participate fully in the community and can do what they want to do are better off. There is a significant amount of literature about mental health and how it is connected to the ability to get around.”

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