A net zero future doesn’t need to kill the two-car garage
As chief infrastructure officer for the state of Michigan, it’s Zachary Kolodin’s job to usher in the future of mobility while still prioritizing the state’s basic infrastructure needs.
This story is part of "The Future of Mobility," a Protocol special report. Read more here.
Michigan is home to Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, and dozens of their automotive suppliers. The state that birthed the American automotive industry now wants to help embrace its change: from gas to electric and hydrogen, and from human-driven to autonomous.
Zachary Kolodin, Michigan’s chief infrastructure officer, is tasked with ushering in that future. The state can be a leader in decarbonization, Kolodin believes, arriving at a net zero future that still leaves room for the automobile. To that end, Michigan secured $110 million from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to expand its EV charging network. And in September, Michigan joined a coalition of states forming the Midwestern Hydrogen Coalition, which aims to make use of the $8 billion appropriated within the bipartisan infrastructure law for clean hydrogen hubs.
Kolodin is also involved in the automated vehicle corridor, a $130 million project led by Ford that will deploy the latest vehicle-to-infrastructure communications technologies on a strip of highway connecting Ann Arbor to Detroit. That project ends just a stone's throw away from Michigan Central Station, a designated municipal zone for testing new mobility solutions created through a public-private partnership between Google, Ford, the city of Detroit, and the State of Michigan. The state has allocated $126 million in resources to the program.
But Kolodin is careful to point out that the future of mobility isn’t the top infrastructure priority for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Rather, it’s all about the basics: making sure people can drive to work safely, drain water away from their homes, and generally have “all the things that people need to build a good life,” Kolodin explained.
Michigan faces challenges in addressing these everyday needs. The state has 7,345 miles of highway in poor condition, according to the Department of Transportation. Commute times have increased over the past decade, and drivers on average can expect to pay $644 annually for vehicle repairs due to poor road conditions. Luckily, the state is poised to receive around $9 billion in federal funding over the next five years to address some of these problems.
In a conversation with Protocol, Kolodin discussed the downstream effects of autonomous vehicle deployment, how better permitting can reduce infrastructure costs, and why mobility innovation doesn’t need to be confined to urban areas.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Of all the futuristic transportation technologies, are there any that you see as being particularly over- or underappreciated?
Most people don't appreciate how dangerous the roads are, in a relative sense: America's roads are more dangerous than roads in other parts of the world, and driving on roads is more dangerous than taking other forms of transportation.
So I think what is exciting about connected and autonomous vehicles is it offers us one way out of that trap. Once they're fully tested and deployed on infrastructure that supports their use, connected and autonomous vehicles should be much more predictable and reliable than vehicles operated by human drivers. So you could see a really significant reduction in vehicle-related fatalities.
We would all like to find a way out of losing friends and families to transportation-related deaths. This is one way out and I think that's really exciting. But there's [still] a lot to do to both bring those vehicles in folks' budgets and also get people comfortable with sitting in a vehicle that is not necessarily driving based on their intuition for what would be the safest and fastest way to drive.
Taking that a step further, are there any other benefits to autonomous vehicles that you feel are underappreciated?
A lot of the delays that we experience on the roads are also caused by human error. If somebody misread the pavement condition, didn’t understand the roads were slippery — whatever the case may be, all of that causes really substantial delays. It makes people late for work, causes hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity, and makes people really annoyed.
So if you had a world where you could reasonably assure that you weren't going to encounter a delay on the way to work, we could all maybe spend an extra 10 minutes having coffee with our families in the morning or getting a little bit more sleep. And I think that would also be a good thing. It’s connecting these exciting technologies to improvements in our quality of life that is sometimes missing from the conversation.
There’s been a lot of talk of fully autonomous vehicles changing car ownership models — which, in many cases, means doing away with ownership altogether. People have talked about, for instance, people relying exclusively on a vehicle service they can call through a ride-hailing app. Do you see that happening?
I really don't know, to be honest. I used to live in New York City. When we lived there, we had either zero cars or one car. Now in Michigan, we have two cars. I do think that one of the reasons people decide to live in a place like Michigan is because they enjoy the experience of getting in their car and experiencing the Great Lakes or the sort of tourism opportunities that are made possible by high-performing roads and easy access to automobiles.
So I don't know if it changes because a lot of people enjoy that way of living their lives. When we think about what it takes to get to a future where Michigan is at net zero carbon emissions, I still think that future has room for the automobile. We have clear ways to get to net zero carbon emissions, where people are still buying Ford or where people are still living with two car garages and taking trips to the Upper Peninsula. That's all still possible — it just depends on our ability to build and fund renewable energy, to have flexible, low- or no-carbon baseload energy, and to keep costs down for the raw materials that go into making our cars, solar panels, and all that stuff.
Why is the cost of building infrastructure in the U.S. still so expensive, especially relative to other countries?
It is a complicated issue. I think one of the drivers of higher cost in the U.S. — not for all projects, but certainly for some — is the difficulty and unpredictability of the permitting process.
Challenges to environmental assessments can take a project off its proposed timeline, which often costs both taxpayers and the developer millions of dollars. We strongly believe that environmental protection is an important priority — but I think we also recognize that if we're going to build the infrastructure assets we need to make this clean energy transition, we have to be able to move projects through the permitting process in a more predictable and reliable way.
That is why we launched this effort to streamline permitting. We believe it will, over time, make Michigan a more attractive place to invest — because it becomes clear that this is a place where you can actually build stuff — and it should also reduce costs by taking some uncertainty out of the process.
Two and a half years after the first case of COVID-19, we're [still] dealing with really severe supply chain problems and challenges in workforce participation. Both those could drive up costs, and I think Gov. Whitmer recognizes that that's a really serious risk to our infrastructure ambitions. We’re doing everything we can to train a skilled workforce to build high-speed internet [and] roads, and also to bring manufacturing back to the United States so that we can guarantee the reliability of our supply chain, reduce transportation costs, and create jobs.
A lot of Michigan is rural. Do you feel like there’s less room for infrastructure innovation in those areas, seeing as many current solutions seem to focus on urban mobility?
In an urban setting, different transportation modes interact with each other a lot more than in a rural setting. So these kinds of smart technologies actually experience some of their harshest test conditions in the urban environment. So part of the answer is, if we want to move forward on how we get around and use the most up-to-date technologies, it probably makes sense to deploy those technologies first in more rural settings where there are fewer complications from bikes, scooters, and the like. Then we can make sure that they work before deploying them in urban settings.
So in terms of job creation and the opportunity for participation in innovation — there really is a space for rural areas to get involved. That being said, there are really exciting opportunities to do testing in the city as well, once you get the technology to a more advanced stage. That's what the Michigan Central Station public-private partnership with Ford is all about: creating a transportation innovation zone where you can test these advanced technologies in an environment that's designed to support that kind of testing in a city.