Tag Archives: Technology

Need a change agent? Look to your CIO

In his 50 years in the tech industry, Francis (Fran) Dramis has discovered his passions: investing in startup and emerging businesses and helping leaders give meaning to people who work for them.

Fran Dramis

Francis (Fran) Dramis

In addition to comprehending the technical, financial and logistical aspects of running a technology business, the author, investor, retired CIO, and change agent understands what fuels morale and aids employee retention and innovation.

For his keynote address at the Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Awards program, Dramis, the former CIO of BellSouth, plans to present the importance of CIOs becoming meaningful interveners in the lives of their employees.

“They need to go beyond the task of just producing output and help the people working for them get meaning from their tasks,” Dramis said.

About box



The CIO Challenge

Dramis, who also judges CIO-related awards, is attune with what makes an effective and innovative leader.

While CTOs are purely technically focused, he said, CIOs take what the CTO has and blends that with their business knowledge. CIOs must convert businesspeople into accepting that technology will change their business processes.

“That kind of nudging is really tough,” Dramis said. “A good CIO will be the instigator of the transformation of a major business. I was always on the cusp of a transformational event that allowed me to do work in a different way.”

As senior vice president, CIO and chief security officer of BellSouth, which AT&T acquired, Dramis was responsible for technology in the company, software connected into public network switches, data and physical security. In other words, he helped BellSouth evolve from being just a phone company to becoming a more connected, technology company.

Long before COVID, Dramis convinced the business leaders he worked with that salespeople didn’t need offices. As long as they had technology, they could work remotely and be more flexible.

“Today, change is upon us because of COVID and other things, and working remotely is the norm,” he said. “A good CIO would have known that’s where it was going in advance and been capable of capturing important information and social interaction prior to COVID to make remote work happen.”

A good CIO also realizes that changes need to be implemented in “digestible chunks,” he said. “If they implement technology too fast, Bob or Joan, who have been handling it the same way for 10 years and doing it well, may not be able to keep up,” he said.

The CIO Path

Dramis, who authored three books, including “The Four Secrets of Retention: Holding Mindshare in a Transitional World,” has decades worth of advice for seasoned CIOs as well as for those just beginning post-secondary education and considering careers in information systems management.

He said the latter need to begin with a technical background, or platform, to which they add an MBA or MBA equivalent.

“The biggest issues are in the translation process. You need to speak the language of the business,” he said.

This knowledge is crucial because many leaders don’t know the systems, or assets, supporting them, and good CIOs value their assets.

“If you were running an oil rig, you would know the life of the assets,” he said. “A company’s most important assets are its people; yet, many leaders don’t understand their value.”

Acknowledging the value of one’s technical staff is why when Salomon Brothers Inc. approached him about being a managing director and CIO, Dramis told them he wouldn’t take the job unless he could make the technology portion of the company a separate entity.

“When you treat technology people like back office people, that’s what you get.,” he said. “By making technology a separate company, the tech people could be treated like front-office employees. By making them front-office employees, you attract more skilled workers.”

Transforming a Life

Dramis was mentoring someone in his architecture group at Salomon Bros. when he learned the man wanted, at the end of his career, to make a presentation to the national science foundation. So, the pair looked out for the credentials needed to do so and Dramis mapped out an incremental plan that could get him to that point.

The plan included becoming a consultant, joining a venture capital group, earning his Ph.D. and becoming a notable scholar, all of which required skills the man didn’t yet have. But the man started by learning to write and make presentations.

Dramis left Salomon and the men lost touch. But four years later, he picked up a magazine and saw among a list of the four hottest technical consultants a photo of his former mentee. Years later, Dramis learned he was lead technical person at a venture group. Years after that, Dramis discovered the man had become a professor and liaison between his university and all government entities.

“As I walked into the office, we celebrated that he was there based on the plan that was put together so many years before,” Dramis said.

If people get only one idea from his keynote address, Dramis hopes it’s that leaders are intervening in people’s lives every day. That intervention can be task- or meaning-focused, but it’s the latter that’s truly consequential and transformative. “The only way to help an employee get more meaning from their tasks is to know the employee’s endgame. Be an end-of-career facilitator, and you’ll get more employee retention.”

Crain's Content Studio originally published this story here for MichiganCIO.

CIOs must address value, impact over technology

Successful business leaders understand that IT strategies are foundational elements to corporate strategies and their tech workforce are critical strategic partners to leadership and clients.

Melanie Kalmar, Corporate Vice President/Chief Information Officer/Chief Digital Officer, Dow

Leadership Award Recipient: Melanie Kalmar, Corporate Vice President/Chief Information Officer/Chief Digital Officer, Dow

“Unlike just five years ago, CIO’s now need to know all aspects of a company or organization, such as traditional manufacturing, supply chain operations, how financials in the company are run, security and the latest in technology, not to mention customers’ tastes and demands,” said Melanie Kalmar, corporate vice president, CIO and Chief Digital Officer for The Dow Chemical Company. “This is even more crucial as technology and CIOs help companies respond to unforeseen challenges, such as COVID, to maintain business continuity and connectivity with customers.”

Kalmar is the 2020 recipient of the Michigan CIO of the Year ORBIE Leadership Award. She earned a degree in management information systems from Central Michigan University and took on roles at Dow that helped her understand how technology could solve business issues on a large scale.

CIOs and their teams touch every part of a company every day, “putting them in a unique position to accelerate collaboration across an organization and get alignment on where best to invest in digital resources that will drive the most value for the company and customers,” she added.

More often, companies are looking to CIOs to help improve employee and customer experiences.

“Gone are the days of pushing out the latest new capabilities and then moving on,” Kalmar said. “Here to stay is business-aligned prioritization with shared ownership for change management and adoption to ensure we get the value and continuous improvement needed.

Among other initiatives, Dow also gathers data through market-listening capabilities that, integrated with machine leaning and advance modeling, allows it to develop products faster.

Looking to improve performance in sustainability, the company developed a mobile friendly, web-based lifecycle assessment tool to provide information regarding the environmental impacts of associated products and services and digital technology to reduce its carbon footprint and improve compliance.

A CIO’s biggest challenge, Kalmar said, is helping an enterprise understand that digital isn’t just an IT thing but a crucial corporate function. She said this requires CIOs to speak in terms of value and business impact and not in terms of technology.

“At Dow, we’ve changed the narrative within our teams to talk about technology as business drivers and value creators for the company, customers and employees. The more we’ve linked digital to outcomes in business terms, the more employees understand what’s in it for them, and the more we’ve been able to get them excited about playing a role in our digital acceleration,”

Just as IT strategies shouldn’t be limited to information systems functions, tech employees shouldn’t be relegated to being backroom service providers, she said.

“Members of our CIO teams are now embedded into functional and business teams. They’ve taken on new, ‘hybrid’ roles where they become fluent in business drivers and can translate those into digital strategies. But that is just the start,” Kalmar said. “These teams represent all functions and businesses, and by working together have become key in delivering the right capabilities and getting the right engagement to deliver successfully.”

Crain's Content Studio originally published this story here for MichiganCIO.

Schools strive to overcome digital dilemma

food distribution

Tensions abound in much of the world as medical professionals struggle to contain the novel coronavirus, governments look to get the economy back on track and families contemplate how they will navigate the “new normal.”

For the millions of educators responsible for nurturing new generations of Americans, the past few months have whipped up a whirlwind of decisions, from creating crash courses in distance learning to finding new ways to feed students and tend to their mental health. Along the way, this period has painfully exposed the digital divide that deprives young people in underserved communities of the opportunities to learn in the modern age.

Moreover, just as this coronavirus, called COVID-19, continues to slash corporate revenues and wreck the bottom lines of workers, the pandemic is also threatening academic budgets and posing a big question mark for the future: Will students be able to return to classrooms this fall?

Coronavirus-related school closures have disrupted more than 1.5 billion students and 63 million teachers worldwide, according to UNESCO’s Teacher Task Force. In the United States, 118,251 out of 123,952 schools in 48 states; Washington, D.C.; and the five U.S. territories closed their doors and moved to distance learning, affecting nearly 58 million K-12 students, according to MCH Strategic Data.

Kimberly M. Carter headshot

Kimberly M. Carter Superintendent, Battle Creek Public Schools

“It’s a high-stress time right now because you have to make sure all children learn,” said Kimberly Carter, superintendent of Battle Creek Public Schools in Michigan.

“How do we mitigate the impact of poverty, the impact of race, the impact of trauma and a host of other issues, to ensure students have equitable opportunities to learn? Failure is not an option. These are children’s lives we’re talking about.”

The digital dilemma

While some school districts were well-positioned to launch into distance-only learning, many—particularly those in rural or impoverished communities—were not.

David James, superintendent of the Akron Public Schools in Ohio, thought shifting to distance learning would be more of a struggle. Long before the coronavirus, the school district dubbed itself APS Connected Learning.

“We gave teachers a week to flip to Google Classroom assignments,” James said. “The one thing we had going for us is that several years ago, we went one-to-one with technology and provided all our students with Chromebooks they could use daily.”

Before the shutdown, Akron’s elementary schoolchildren didn’t take the laptops home. However, all 21,000 students were able to do so when the district closed schools. Although far from perfect, James is relatively pleased with the results.

“We’ve had about 44 percent of students really engaging, another 40 percent engaging on and off and another 15 percent struggling with internet access,” he said. For those students, Akron leased mobile hotspots to provide ad hoc wireless connectivity.

Yet, each school district’s experience has been different.

In Battle Creek, “We had to literally scramble, really try to figure out how to disrupt the digital divide that is present in our school district,” Carter said. “The majority of our population are considered economically disadvantaged. They need access to basics—such as food, clothing and shelter—let alone digital access.”

Battle Creek distributed each of its Chromebooks, then used its small surplus of funds to procure additional devices.

Student and teacher work on math problems

Detroit Children’s Center student working with a teacher on homework March 14. This individual attention is more difficult to come by with distance learning, now. Photo by Charlotte Smith

“We have families that range from no device in the home to one device in the home but multiple children,” Carter said.

The school system distributed 1,800 devices to those who could pick them up. However, because access to transportation is a problem, the district worked with Communities in Schools—a national organization that helps schools empower at-risk students—to distribute more. The goal was to ensure each of the 2,500 households in the Battle Creek district had one device.

“But how do you expect someone with four children to keep their kids connected and engaged?” Carter asked. “We have to increase the number of devices. We need to be prepared to go one-to-one. No child should be missing out on the opportunity to have a virtual learning experience.”

Alycia Meriweather headshot

Alycia Meriweather Deputy Superintendent, Detroit Public Schools Community District

However, giving students devices without connecting them to the internet doesn’t solve the problem, said Alycia Meriweather, deputy superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD).

Although Battle Creek has purchased and distributed 300 mobile hotspots, Carter said, about 1,000 families still lack internet access.

In Detroit, Meriweather said 85% to 90% percent of public school students lack “educationally adequate devices or internet at home,” and 78 percent of the slightly more than 600,000 Detroit residents access the internet through their phones.

“A cellphone is not the ideal educational device,” Meriweather said.

Before the pandemic, the Detroit district was working to get one-to-one technology use for students during their school day. Administrators, teachers and many K-8 students had one-to-one access to devices. The next phase was providing that same access to high school students.

Then DPSCD received $23 million from Connected Futures, a coalition of businesses and philanthropic organizations. The money allowed the district to get devices into the hands of each of its 51,000 students before the end of the school year and provide six months of internet access in each home (34,000 of them) along with technical support.

While Detroit and Battle Creek work to shore up technology, each district also provides paper-pencil learning packets to many students.

Nevertheless, students there aren’t nearly as engaged as those in Akron, which already had one-to-one technology access.

“I have been honest with our staff about just maintaining levels of achievement,” Carter said. “We are trying to disrupt COVID-caused learning loss.”

In Detroit, Meriweather said homework hotlines are still operating, and teachers are holding online classes. Students who lack a computer or internet access and can’t join by video can still join by phone audio.

Still, educators said, it’s not enough.

The mental health dilemma

Education isn’t just about reading, writing and arithmetic. Socialization is an essential part of learning as well, said Dan Greenberg, a high school English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio.

Dan Greenberg headshot

Dan Greenberg Southview High School English teacher

Before schools closed, Greenberg and his wife, Nicki, struggled daily to get one of their daughters up and ready for school. Sometimes, she even begged to be home-schooled. Yet, when he told his daughter school was canceled, she cried.

“That’s how big a deal this is,” Greenberg said. “Socialization is important for the kids. If we don’t end up reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ next year, I’ll be sad because I like teaching it. But it’ll be OK. The most important thing is dealing with the trauma affecting kids.”

Helping children maintain their current levels of achievement means providing support not only for their academics but also for their mental health during traumatic periods such as the pandemic, Carter said.

“School buildings—especially for students in high-poverty, high-trauma areas—are sanctuaries,” Meriweather said. “We provide academics, but there’s this other element of a safe space where someone is greeting you, asking about you, encouraging you and pushing you to move along in your studies.”

As a school district that promotes a culture of safety, empowerment and healing, Battle Creek redeployed substitute teachers, ancillary staff and others to conduct welfare checks on students—call to ask how they’re doing, what they need and then connect them with resources to meet their basic needs.

“We already had in place some structures that helped us respond in a rapid way to the COVID crisis,” Carter said. To serve its students, the district works with medical and mental health providers, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and the Battle Creek Police Department, among others.

Similarly, Detroit set up a mental health hotline and, like many other school districts around the country, has teachers check on each student.

Akron Superintendent James said the student board has been a valuable resource in letting his district know what students need, and community partners have helped provide counseling resources.

“They can’t go to the park, they can’t go to the mall,” he said. “It’s very difficult for kids to deal with.”

Students aren’t the only ones struggling, however.

Greenberg, who is also president of the Sylvania Education Association, said it’s a stressful time for teachers as well. Among other issues, he said, they are concerned about their families as well as their students. They’ve lost the order and structure they thrive on. And they worry about being compliant with federal laws governing the education of special-needs students.

Dan Greenberg talks with two male and two female students at a table in a classroom

Dan Greenberg, an English teacher at Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, interacting with students before school buildings closed due to COVID-19. Photo provided by Dan Greenberg

“You turn your head this way or that way, and there is a litany of issues they’re dealing with,” said Greenberg, struggling to hold back tears. “I’ve had colleagues ask for a leave of absence even though they don’t have to physically show up at school. I take their stress to heart.”

Teachers nationwide are coping by engaging with colleagues through virtual meetings and talks with school counselors. Greenberg—who receives calls, texts and emails from distressed teachers all day and night—has been going to see a counselor twice weekly.

“As president of the teacher association, I feel personally responsible for all of the teachers,” he said. “Their problems and concerns are my problems and concerns. It really is hard to just cut it off and decompress.”

The hunger dilemma

In a normal school year, the National School Lunch Program operates in about 100,000 pre-K-12 schools, providing low-cost or free lunches to nearly 30 million children at school daily. Then, in mid-March, schools across the country began closing, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing program flexibility.

“Our food services staff has been on the front lines of this, working feverishly,” Carter said. Since March 13, the Battle Creek district has distributed more than 200,000 meals. Students pick up two days of breakfast and lunch on Mondays and Wednesdays and three days of meals on Fridays, or Communities In Schools delivers to those without transportation.

Detroit, which has a similar grab-and-go plan, created 19 sites for meal pickup, Meriweather said. The district is also connecting families in need with resources such as food banks. In Akron, James said bus drivers, school security staff and community partners have helped distribute 10,000 to 14,000 meals daily to children in need.

The reopening dilemma

Although school administrators across the U.S. can’t act until they receive gubernatorial and CDC guidance for opening classrooms this fall, they are heavily engaged in planning.

“First and foremost is answering this guiding question,” Greenberg said: “What can we do to best serve our students and their families?”

School systems are developing a plan A, B, C, D and E. But more questions continue to arise.

“We know no one will be happy with what we do,” Greenberg said. “We’re trying to do it with good conscience, keeping in mind the science, the social distancing aspect.”

In urban schools, James said, class size is an issue. “If we’re going to have a smaller class size to be safe, that means no more than 10 kids in a classroom,” he said. “It would be impossible for us to serve all the kids in our buildings.”

Making that work could mean different schedules for kids. For instance, some students may attend school Mondays and Wednesdays, while others attend Tuesdays and Thursdays. Or, perhaps one group of students attends on Monday, Wednesday and Friday one week and Tuesday and Thursday the next week.

Graph showing percentage of students at $10000 income increasing at increments

Pew Research Center

Meriweather hopes schools in Detroit can return to face-to-face learning but said schools envision a variety of scenarios, including modified face-to-face with social distancing or a hybrid of face-to-face and online learning—which Detroit would be able to do because of Connected Futures.

Another plan might be using all of a district’s school buildings for elementary students and having high school students continue distance learning, Carter said.

“And do we need to extend the school day, since we’re going to be in recovery mode when we return in the fall?” she said.

Also, James asked, how do you get kids who don’t have transportation to the schools?

“There are typically more than 40 students on a bus,” he said. “To socially distance, we could only have 10 to 15 kids on a bus. My thinking is that we start completely virtual, then slowly bring students back, maybe starting with kindergarten or special-needs students.”

Teachers, secretaries, bus drivers and food service workers have been expressing their concerns, James said.

“What do we do about PPE (personal protective equipment) when health care workers need it first?” he said. “The same question goes with food. How does returning to school impact how we feed our kids? These are complex issues, and all of them are interconnected.”

The budget dilemma

Underscoring these issues are unstable state economies. Each reopening plan requires money. But with revenue down in most states, schools face significant budget cuts.

Battle Creek’s Carter fears the budget consequences of buying the technology necessary to effectively teach remotely.

“We did a lot of hard work to pull ourselves out of a deficit and have been fiscally responsible over the last couple of years,” she said. Now, the district is using its fund balance to purchase equipment it didn’t expect to buy.

DPSCD expects it will need to add about $3 million of its own funds to meet the Connected Futures goal of providing each student a device and internet access by the end of this school year, Meriweather said.

“Cuts will hurt high-poverty districts even more because the needs are so much greater. Different students have different needs,” Meriweather said. “That’s the difference between equity and equality. Social services, teaching non-English speakers, special needs—those cost more money.

“There’s only a certain amount you can cut before you are really compromising the quality of service you are providing to students.”

(This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.)

2019’s most Notable Women in Michigan

Talented women do business all over the globe.

Specifically, Michigan women are relentless, approachable, focused, and community-oriented. They defend high net-worth clients, navigate restructurings, lead mergers, invent new products, secure patents, manage plants, harness the power of technology, enhance brands and save lives.

My client Crain’s Detroit Business honors Notable Women in Michigan. Find out who made our lists:


You want these Notable Women in Law on your side. They set legal precedents, relentlessly pursue justice and win big cases for their clients — all while mentoring the next wave of women in law and finding ways to give back.

These Notable Women advance secondary and higher educational offerings, empower teachers, encourage students and contribute to their community.

Crain’s Notable Women in STEM are inventors and healers. They are leaders who innovating our future in mobility, infrastructure, health, information technology, energy and more. They are building up the next generation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Crain’s Notable Women in HR are the people behind the people. In this special report, we honor outstanding women at Michigan companies who recruit, attract, retain and engage the people who make businesses successful. They motivate excellence, make or break company culture and help manage the rapid change every business must navigate today.

Crain’s Notable Women in Real Estate have brokered some of the region’s biggest deals, financed major projects, grown portfolios and changed the face of neighborhoods and communities across metro Detroit. They are designers, architects, construction managers, teachers and unquestionably leaders in what has historically been a male-dominated field.



Universities drive innovation in Michigan

Someone putting in a contact lens.

How Michigan is winning the race in connected technology

Do more in less time. Arrive at destinations quicker and safer. Improve work-life balance. These wants have fueled thousands of years of invention and progress, including the advent of the horse-drawn carriage, automobile, rocket ship and Internet.

Today’s mobility innovations have experts predicting solutions with near-future technology previously seen only in science fiction. Consider:

  • Safer roads that adjust based on vehicle communications and traffic patterns, dramatically reducing the number of auto-related fatalities;
  • Pods that deliver a person from one destination to another; and
  • Integrated technologies that would predict when a household will run out of certain supplies and replenish them before homeowners even know they’re needed.

“We are seeing the realization of artificial intelligence taking over tasks that are really human driven. That’s going to be pushed forward at the leading edge by the automotive industry,” said John Verboncoeur, associate dean for research at Michigan State University. “We’re going to see it in your kitchen and in your laundry room and in every stage of your life.”

What happens when 15 government, business and academic leaders come together in one room to talk car-sharing and connectivity? A powerful snapshot of the state of mobility in Michigan. Planet M, a brand created by the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and leading automotive thought leaders to position the state as the epicenter for mobility, and Crain Content Studio, the custom publishing division of Crain’s Detroit Business, gathered these experts for a roundtable discussion at Crain Communications in Detroit on April 28, 2017. Crain’s Publisher Ron Fournier moderated the conversation.

Roundtable participants:

  • Anya Babbitt
  • William Buller
  • Laurel Champion
  • Mark de la Vergne
  • Carrie Morton
  • Jessica Robinson
  • Ted Serbinski
  • Colin Goldsmith
  • Craig Hoff
  • Kevin Kerrigan
  • Peter Kosak
  • Kirk Steudle
  • Nicole Stevenson
  • Glenn Stevens
  • John Verboncoeur
Sponsored by Planet M and originally published on Crain's Detroit.

IHS Automotive, an online source for engineers, estimates that between now and 2035, nearly 76 million vehicles with some level of autonomy will be sold globally. Michigan accounts for nearly $60 billion of the $3 trillion global auto industry. Yet, experts say if approached correctly, the state, also known for its mounting number of high-tech hubs, may find itself at the epicenter of a $10 trillion mobility industry.

Keeping this potential at the forefront, the Michigan Economic Development Corp., through Planet M, is supporting various elements in mobility technology, such as robotics in manufacturing and other outgrowths of this artificial intelligence capability.

“The economic opportunity and necessity for Michigan to play in that personal mobility and shared-use economy is absolutely essential to our future,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto, an economic development initiative of the Detroit Regional Chamber.

The key to Michigan’s future success? Those in the mobility space must acquire an understanding of societal and legal ramifications, properly build upon Michigan’s automotive history to create a far-reaching mobility ecosystem and continue to grow the state’s highly skilled talent base. Moreover, experts agree collaboration is essential — not just between Michigan automotive and tech companies but with public and private entities inside and outside of the state.

Defining mobility

It’s easy to limit the definition of mobility to autonomous — self-driving and driverless — vehicles. But the word, and the industry, have far broader implications for businesses, humans, vehicles and other commodities and services.

Ted Serbinski, managing director at Techstars Mobility, a Detroit-based venture capital business incubator, puts it bluntly — and broadly: “Mobility is the movement of people and goods.”

In other words, major auto companies and suppliers can’t just manufacture a car and claim to play in the mobility space. Serbinski explained that the automotive industry needs to shift its focus from just building physical devices to, in some cases, changing business models to offer a variety of services.

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, for instance, have been partnering with organizations to broaden services they provide customers.


Michigan is at an advantage to succeeding in the mobility industry based on the state’s proximity to OEMs, collective experience and strong educational institutions. Experts recognize continuing to grow Michigan’s talent pipeline is a crucial element.  Here’s what they had to say.

  • Ford has been developing electric bikes that, in conjunction with an Apple Watch app, provide bicyclists with weather or fitness data.
  • Ford also has Carr-E, a four-wheeled pedestrian-assisted device you can stand on and use to move around or that can carry packages and follow the transmitter you carry as you walk.
  • GM is developing predictive technology that tells a driver when his or her car needs maintenance before it breaks down.
  • GM also partnered with ride-sharing service Lyft to launch a car-sharing service, called Maven.

Peter Kosak, executive director for urban mobility at GM, said mobility is about access and options and leveraging technology — whether it’s app-based or autonomous.

“(But) if we don’t solve the problem of people wanting to commute together, we’ll continue to be crushed by morning and evening commutes. And if people don’t knock out the friction through psychology or technology then that problem isn’t going to be solved,” Kosak said.

The commute problem is one that’s driving Anya Babbitt, who moved her ride-sharing company, SPLT, from New York City to Detroit in 2015 to be part of Serbinski’s Techstars accelerator. SPLT is working with OEMs and municipalities to learn how it can complement other transportation options, such as van pools and bus lines. “For people to feel confident with other mobility options, we need to have an alignment of multiple services so that individuals can feel, for instance, that they can leave the car behind,” Babbitt said.

To Kevin Kerrigan, senior vice president of the MEDC’s automotive office, mobility means, simply, freedom.

“It’s something that allows us to look beyond where we are now and look for those opportunities,” Kerrigan said. Those opportunities could be in autonomous desks that tell users when they need to stand up and walk around. Or, they could be something larger.

Kirk Steudle, the state’s Director of Transportation, said he had a conversation last month about autonomous ships. “Thinking about that changes the whole business equation,” he said. Read more about those opportunities.

Test tracks and towns

Deploying safe, driverless vehicles is impossible without “infrastructure maturity, technology readiness and regulation,” reports Harvard Business Review in an analysis of the industry this spring.

Carrie Morton is confident such deployment is possible. Morton, deputy director of Mcity, a 23-acre mini community at the University of Michigan crafted for driverless car technology, said Michigan is positioned to research and test many of the collective questions that need to be answered before mobility technologies are fully implemented.

“It is a unique opportunity to learn a lot more than just about the technology, but about the challenges in deployment,” she said. “For instance: OK, now I want to put an autonomous vehicle on the road. How do I work with the Secretary of State to do that? How do I work with the U.S. Department of Transportation? What needs to be in place? I think we’re really starting to exercise the new (autonomous vehicle) laws.”

Because of bills passed late last year, Michigan should be able to operate autonomous ride-sharing services and sell driverless cars in the near future. The first step, though, is testing. While the U.S. Department of Transportation has designated 10 testing sites for self-driving vehicles, the largest deployment of vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology in the country resides in Michigan.


We asked participants to set a scene for the future of mobility.  Here’s how they imagine it will be.

In addition to Mcity, the state is home to the American Center for Mobility at Willow Run, where Ford once built the B-24 bomber and GM manufactured transmissions.

Steudle said Michigan jumped in the waters of V2I technology when it was still an idea. “About three weeks after that bridge collapse (in Minnesota in 2007), we were talking about this thing called connected vehicles. So, we put a challenge out to our ITS team and said, ‘Let’s see if we can have the Mackinac Bridge instrumented (with communications technology) before the Labor Day Bridge Walk.’ That was three weeks later. It was temporary, but we did it,” he said.

The same communication mechanisms Michigan used then are what the state is using today in vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V) and V2I, Steudle pointed out. Since 2007, Michigan has developed 155 roadside units spread across the state, most of them in Southeast Michigan. For some of it, the state worked in collaboration with the U.S. DOT and CAMP, a consortium of automakers, to do the research. The goal is to instrument 350 miles in Southeast Michigan alone.

To do this, he said, they asked a variety of questions: “Can we make this intersection talk to a car? Can we make the Ford and the GM talk together?”

Once the answer becomes yes — once cars automatically maintain safe distances from one another, alert drivers when they aren’t paying attention, notify them of pedestrians they may not see or warn them of slick road conditions — then experts say the technology will save lives.

“Roughly 1,021 people died on Michigan roads last year. One life is unacceptable. We have to reverse that. Ultimately this technology is about saving lives,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MICHauto.

According to Steudle and Morton, traffic fatalities could drop 90 percent when autonomous vehicles deploy on Michigan roads.

Understanding that mobility isn’t just about cars, Mcity created a tech lab where the entrepreneurial community can vet technologies in an environment they wouldn’t get anywhere else in the world. The environment includes all the players in the sector — insurance companies, auto OEMs and Tier 1’s — and allows the innovators to “play in the sandbox” and learn.

American Center for Mobility

Part of the test track at the American Center for Mobility.

“Nowhere else in the country do we have this capability, where you can start from the very beginning and graduate right through into your verification and validation environment where they can support the full ecosystem as we move toward putting these technologies into commercialization,” Morton said.

Mcity and ACM complement one another, said Laurel Champion, ACM’s COO. “We are able to provide the very early stages of research, and there’s the ability, by the end of this year, to come to our site and to be able to test and really work on product development.”

Autonomous vehicles and mobility aren’t just an auto manufacturer issue. William Buller said the military is also interested in the technology. Keweenaw Research Center, a research center supported by external corporate and governmental agency funding in Houghton, Mich., provides an unstructured environment, customizable with ice grooming machines to make the surface road-like for the military and automotive companies.

If that’s not enough, Kettering University in Flint is also putting in a 3-acre road course test track. “It’s designed to be a general-purpose facility, not a dedicated autonomous vehicle facility. But we have Tier 1 corporate partners that are down in Auburn Hills that go out in the parking lot to do tests. We’re 30 minutes up the road. We can certainly do better than a test in the parking lot,” said Craig Hoff, engineering professor and dean of the College of Engineering at Kettering University.

Kerrigan said that while the state is the epicenter of integration of vehicle technology and the proving of vehicle technology, he doesn’t think it’s smart to go it alone. He said collaborating with Silicon Valley is a necessity. “I think a lot of the IT companies in Silicon Valley are really realizing how difficult it is to build a vehicle and how difficult it is to get one on the road and keep it there and bring out the next model, and how much money it takes to do that.”

Nicole Stevenson, vice president for Flex, agreed. “Everybody has the same goals we’re working toward. It’s not really about Detroit vs. Silicon Valley or Detroit vs. Israel or other tech hubs. We’re all trying to work together and get the best for mobility and to solve the issues.”

Ensuring mobility benefits everyone

Industry leaders recognize mobility is about more than business competition and cool technology. It’s about creating access and equality.

Mark de la Vergne, the city of Detroit’s Chief Mobility Officer, noted that mobility technology, particularly when it comes to autonomous vehicles, poses a significant challenge to Detroit because its size likely will make it a complex environment with regards to testing and deployment and because different demographics and populations use technology differently.

“There are lots of things that we need to learn: How different populations use different types of services, different types of technologies,” he said. “Forty percent of the people in this city right now don’t have a phone or don’t have internet access. We’re looking at making sure this is not just something that works for young white kids who haven’t even graduated high school.

“It’s about engagement. If I go to the east side of this city and talk about autonomous vehicles, they’re just going to ask me why the bus isn’t coming. There’s a huge spectrum, and we can’t simply expect that we can drop new things into places, all sorts of places. This question isn’t just in the city. This is suburbs and rural also that are going to need to be figured out. These aren’t just technology solutions. There’s a huge social element.”

Jessica Robinson, director of City Solutions at Ford Motor Co., is working with communities across the country to help answer such questions. “The work that I do is directly with cities, and they very much want to see simplicity when this already complex technology, particularly when it comes to autonomy, comes to their cities.” Her goal is to help create solutions to potential barriers.

“As things evolve, there will be more opportunities to work together in pilot projects and how you as a city work on some problems of integrating mass transit, for example,” said Kosak. “I think one area that certainly everyone is working together on now is getting the right ground rules that make the environment conducive to progress.”

Ten years ago, personal mobility and shared-use economy were terms used only in labs and innovators’ garages. Today, economists are predicting spending in the $1.6 trillion range in the industry by 2020.

Kerrigan urged Michigan’s business leaders to stay in the lead of mobility technology.

Stevens concurred. “We are positioned, if we have the talent and if we build the ecosystem properly to have an economic opportunity and a societal opportunity and an opportunity to save lives. And frankly all of us are working on those things together.”

For more about mobility in Michigan, visit PlanetM.com.