Michigan test drives country’s first mobility officer

Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer at Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, aims to help the state compete for the electric vehicle industry and other modes of transportation.

Trevor Pawl, chief mobility officer at Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, aims to help the state compete for the electric vehicle industry and other modes of transportation. Kimberly White via Getty Images

Trevor Pawl hopes transformations in the automotive industry will also help state government replace “Depression Era departmental structures” with more nimble organizations.

Trevor Pawl is the state of Michigan’s chief mobility officer, a first-of-its-kind role that has gained outsized importance as the auto industry reinvents itself.

Pawl talked with Route Fifty this week at our SLG Tech Summit to describe how Michigan, long the home to the U.S. auto industry, is working to stay ahead of the pack even as other states compete for electric vehicle factories and support services.

The structures of state government itself have had to change to help Michigan adapt, Pawl said, and so has the state’s relationships with private industry, university researchers and even neighboring states.

This transcript below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

To view the entire interview, including Michigan’s efforts to be a research hub for autonomous vehicles and the state’s strategy on developing a workforce that matches the auto industry’s new demands, click here.

Route Fifty: First of all, I’d like to help explain to everyone what your office’s role in Michigan state government is. Can you tell us a little bit about the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification and its mission?

Pawl: My role is not to sleep–ever–because our office is tasked with all modes of future mobility, whether it’s autonomous, connected, shared or electric technologies. As far as I know, I’m the very first chief mobility officer of any state, and so our office is very much trying to write the playbook. I imagine I won’t be the last, because you do need someone who is thinking about this stuff constantly.

Route Fifty: It seems like that would involve a lot of different parts of state government, some of whom may not have worked together all that much before. 

Pawl: It is like you are on the front lines with me. By and large, American government, and specifically state government, is operating off of Depression Era departmental structures, and that’s where we’re running into issues.

In Michigan, we have our Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy that runs the Charge Up Michigan program, that handles all the installation. But now you have NEVI [the federal National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program] coming through our Department of Transportation. It hasn’t traditionally focused on electrification, but it essentially owns the 28,000 miles of road these charging stations are going to be along. And then you have the Department of Technology Management and Budget, which buys chargers and fleets.

We’re having to realign ourselves to these emerging technologies in the 21st century. Everything that the federal infrastructure plan is forcing us to do right now as a state is healthy. It’s good, and it’s going to create systems and structures that are going to last us 70 to 80 years, like the previous structures have.

Route Fifty: Can you give us some ideas of how you’ve gotten those different departments, or agencies, to work together?

Pawl: You create an office for it. You have a permanent air traffic controller, and that’s what Governor [Gretchen] Whitmer wanted to do when she created the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, which is the office that I help lead.

We sit squarely in the middle of four departments [economic development, transportation, energy and labor] that we feel we need to be the global leader in mobility.

There are two mechanisms that we are able to pull.

The first is a council that the governor appointed council of automakers, unions, universities, legislators and state department heads that literally meet monthly to disrupt state law. They look at state law, and say, “That’s archaic. That doesn’t work. Where don’t we have policy where we need policy?” They release recommendations at the end of every year, and then we chase those recommendations for the remainder of the year.

The other mechanism is grants. By stitching together public-private partnerships, we’ve been able to do some really cool projects. So, for example, we’re building the Road of the Future in Michigan, which is a 40-mile stretch of custom-built road that will be exclusively for self-driving vehicles. Another cool project we’re building is the first mile of road in North America where the road actually charges the vehicle as it’s in motion.

We have a smart parking lab that focuses on the future of parking. People know we want to be the global leader in mobility. We also want to be the global leader in immobility, because the car only moves 5% of the time. The other 95% of the time, it’s stationary. The act of parking creates [a lot of] emissions and causes up to 30% of congestion in cities. So, if you can fix the act of parking, our cities are going to operate a lot better.

Route Fifty: The auto industry’s recent shift toward producing electric vehicles has really scrambled the playing field among states. Many states are competing to land factories for autos, batteries and semiconductors. How has Michigan, which has traditionally been home to the auto industry, tried to keep its competitive edge?

Pawl: First, we’ve got to be hungry. We have to act like we’ve never won an assembly plant, like we are not responsible for 75% of automotive R&D in this country right now, which we are. We’ve actually averaged an automotive patent a day for the last 50 years, but all that’s at risk as more of the research is around the software and not around hardware.

So, we’ve tried to take a system-based approach. We know that we have to be good in connected, autonomous and shared technologies as well. We’ve got to be good at trucking. We've got to be good at air mobility. We’ve got to be good at maritime mobility.

To do that, you need to make sure that your incentive tools are competitive. You need to make sure that the workers are there. And you need to make sure that you have the right policy environment that invites innovation but rolls out innovation responsibly. We’re trying to do all of those things at once.

Route Fifty: Tell me about the incentives. Michigan and other states have been rolling out bigger and bigger incentive packages. Why is that such an important component, and is it enough on its own to lure the next big development?

Pawl: The world is beating the doors down for some of these companies. We’re not just competing anymore with Ohio, Indiana and South Carolina. We’re also competing with the entire government in Canada, both the provincial government and the national government, in terms of incentives.

Incentives right now are how the market is working. It’s what companies pay attention to, so we need to be responsive to our customers and come up with something compelling to both retain the companies in the state but also to continue to build the next generation of mobility here in Michigan.

But that’s not all you do. That’s not what Austin did. That’s not what Silicon Valley did. They didn’t write a big check and a bunch of companies showed up. They made a bunch of really smart investments in universities like the University of Texas and Stanford.

That’s what we’re doing in Michigan. We actually just allocated $130 million this year to build an electric vehicle center at the University of Michigan. The university is also focused on the future of robotics, which very much touches on the future of autonomy.

Detroit was recently voted the best startup ecosystem in the world. We’re making sure we have a good network of early-stage capital. We have a good network of good, young companies and support systems and supply chains for those young companies.

Route Fifty: While you’re competing with neighboring states, you’re also cooperating with them. Tell me about some of the collaborations you’ve had with other Midwestern states.

Pawl: Who wants to drive across a state line and have an entire charging infrastructure experience change? The reason McDonald’s works is because it’s the same whether you’re in Mexico City, Albuquerque, Cleveland or Detroit. You want to create a charging system in this country, in North America, in the world, where there are no borders. Everything feels the same. It’s easy. It fits in your life.

That’s why it was common sense to get together Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois to create a five-state pact.

Back in 2021, Michigan announced a new circuit, a signature electric vehicle route along Lake Michigan. The goal was to reinvent the American road trip. A lot of people think of ecotourism as something at the resort you stay at. But what about between the resort and your home–why can’t that be green too? We have a bunch of towns clustered along Lake Michigan, so why couldn’t we create a route that focuses on the community charging experience that will also invite people to explore these communities and stay a little longer.

Because of the five-state [agreement], we were able to have a conversation about extending that circuit unto an entire loop around the lake. Luckily, Chicago’s network along the lake is built out in a pretty excellent way. But in Michigan and Wisconsin, there are large swaths of rural geography there where it’s going to require some custom work.

But we’re going to create that loop, a sort of a new version of Route 66 around the lake.

That multistate strategy is also what was the inspiration for a recent seven-state hydrogen-focused [agreement] that Michigan and Illinois helped co-lead.

Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.

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