Alphabet-backed startup to build self-driving ‘road of the future’

Cavnue autonomous corridor

  • A startup called Cavnue will build a first-of-its-kind 40-mile connected corridor in Michigan with dedicated lanes for autonomous vehicles.
  • AV companies are paying more attention the physical, digital and regulatory infrastructure necessary to get self-driving trucks and cars on the road.
  • The corridor project comes as the state of Michigan continues to rebrand Detroit as a center of 21st- century vehicle innovation.

What comes first: the driverless vehicle or the driverless road? For years the autonomous vehicle community has been pretty sure of the answer: It’s the vehicle, (stupid).

But in mid-2020, as the industry emerges from a sobering period defined by layoffs and consolidations, investors, startups and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) alike are starting to pay more attention to the physical, digital and regulatory infrastructure that will actually allow autonomous cars and trucks to move beyond the pilot phase and onto city streets and highways.

That effort got a big boost last week with the announcement that Sidewalk Infrastructure Partners (SIP) is launching its first big project — a subsidiary called Cavnue to develop infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles.

“We’re building the road of the future,” Mike Shapiro, vice president, SIP, told FreightWaves.

Government and private sector join forces

SIP, backed by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan, created Cavnue (the name is a combination of connected vehicles and avenue) after the state of Michigan issued a request for proposals for an autonomous vehicle corridor last April. 

Leading a public-private collaboration, Cavnue will help build a high-tech 40-mile corridor between downtown Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan, an area that encompasses the Detroit airport, downtown and major freight routes. 

Industry partners include automakers Ford Motor Company, General Motors, BMW, Honda, and Toyota, along with startups Argo AI, Arrival, TuSimple and Waymo, the latter also Alphabet-backed.

Although the initial focus will be on shared mobility and transit, as well as an equity component aimed at closing transportation gaps for underserved communities, “at full implementation” the corridor will “really accelerate freight and logistics as a key form factor and use case,” Shapiro said. 

The AV hype cycle: From the “peak of inflated expectations” to the “slope of enlightenment”

The story of autonomous vehicles over the past decade is a story of the startup hype cycle, and Cavnue itself is seemingly a nod to a more contemplative phase of that cycle.

Yet actual construction of the corridor is at best several years away. And even in the embryonic stages, the Michigan corridor highlights changes and contradictions in the way different industry players are thinking about how AVs will actually make their way into the public realm.

In the first phase Cavnue will work with Michigan state agencies, including the newly launched Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and the Michigan Department of Transportation, on a feasibility and design study that is expected to last about two years. Once that is completed, the collaboration will move forward with “iterative” implementation, according to Shapiro.

Fleshing out some of the details, Shapiro said the new roadway might involve specially hardened pavement to account for the fact that AVs drive over the exact same area of the pavement on every trip. 

Other design elements include road sensors to enable vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications while HD mapping will help reduce congestion and route vehicles more efficiently. “In Phase One we’re going to do a lot of civil engineering and design analysis to figure out the most effective ways to implement the project and operate connected and autonomous vehicles,” Shapiro said.

HOV lanes for driverless vehicles

A defining aspect of the project is the AVs will be traveling in dedicated lanes. The plan is for new roads to be built alongside existing routes, much like a dedicated railroad, light rail line — or car pool lane. 

Segregated lanes take away a lot of the “edge cases” — extremely rare situations vehicles encounter on the road — that are preventing implementation of fully autonomous vehicles, Shapiro explained. 

Consigning vehicles to a segregated lane may represent a concession to mounting public concerns about the safety of self-driving vehicles.

But it also departs from the model many autonomous vehicle companies have developed that assumes self-driving trucks and cars will mingle with regular vehicles.

Public-private partnerships like Cavnue are critical to the eventual deployment of AVs, and “TuSimple is thrilled to lend our expertise as a leader in autonomous tucking,” Robert Brown, the company’s vice president of public affairs and government relations, told FreightWaves in an email.

But TuSimple, which earlier this summer announced the launch of a nationwide “autonomous freight network,”  believes that autonomous vehicles will operate among traditional drivers for “many years to come,” Brown said, and “for this reason, dedicated lanes for self-driving trucks are not necessary or a part of our vision.”

Kodiak Robotics CEO Don Burnette made a similar comment during the FreightWaves Live conference earlier this year, noting it was a misconception that autonomous trucks would need their own lanes.

Detroit, reborn and ready to take on Silicon Valley

Cavnue comes as the state of Michigan continues to aggressively rebrand and rebuild Detroit as a center of 21st- century vehicle innovation. Ford, for example, is turning Michigan Central Station into the hub of a $750-million investment in autonomous, electric and connected vehicles. 

Of the corridor project, executive chairman Bill Ford, he great grandson of the company’s founder, said in a statement: “Building out a connected corridor cements Michigan as a leader in creating a more connected, autonomous, and electrified future.”

The public sector will not have to finance any of the first phase of the project, according to Cavnue, and the builders will explore a variety of funding options such as federal grants or fares from local businesses along the corridor. 

Another important aspect of the project is that it will be “OEM-neutral,” according to Shapiro. 

The partners will work on a framework to develop standards to move connected and autonomous vehicles, and as long as the vehicles that want to operate in the lane meet those standards, Shapiro said, “they should be able to operate in the lane.”

Similar autonomous infrastructure projects have been announced in China, and in the U.S. small scale facilities have tested truck platooning and vehicle infrastructure communications, Shapiro added. 

“But they have not been integrated in a comprehensive, coordinated way like this.”

Related stories:

Infrastructure is next big thing in AV investment

Uber AV crash spotlights federal inaction on safety

Click here for more articles by Linda Baker.