Where are you from?
I was born in Ann Arbor in 1977. I went to Pioneer High School and then to Ohio for college (boo hiss!). My wife is also from Ann Arbor but we didn’t start dating until we both left Ann Arbor and put 1,500 miles between us. We then lived together in several different cities before returning to be close to our families and raise our kids.
How did you first get involved with urban transportation issues?
My wife got into a wreck with my car when we were living in Boston. She was fine but the car was destroyed, so she found a car sharing business online called Zipcar. At that time it was just a couple of cars and you’d pick up the keys from the business owners’ house. She learned they were looking for software engineers to build the business with them. My roommate and I ended up working for them, and helped scale the business from 5 cars to 10,000. Our mission was to tackle the problem of car ownership in urban systems. I brought Zipcar to Ann Arbor where it became a big success. It continues to fill an important niche but Uber and Lyft now occupy a much larger share of the mobility market.
And now you are the Lab Director for Mcity. Do you see a role for self-driving cars in addressing the problem of urban car ownership and commuting?
Passion for vehicles and driving is going to remain for a long time, but self-driving vehicles can help take the headache out of the commute. For example self-driving vehicles could offer real social benefit to remote or sparsely populated communities where it is too expensive to have a public bus with a driver pick people up, but they could use an app to send out a driverless car to bring them to arterial public transportation routes.
What is Mcity and who are the stakeholders?
The nice thing about Mcity is that we are a public private partnership and anyone who has a stake in the mobility systems of the future is a potential partner. Mcity is a 30 acre life size model city on UM campus where driverless vehicles are tested. Part of our mission is to assist research and help foster the development of these technologies (safely!). We target research that is of shared interest to many different schools at the University, from law and transportation to urban planning and engineering. We pool money from member companies like Ford, GM and Chrysler and share research results with the community.
How comfortable are you personally with machines having so much power?
Machines are already making decisions for us but we are not aware of those decisions being made. When you put your foot on the accelerator it’s a computer that is responding to that pressure with a host of calculations. Many cars already have some automation, for example helping drivers to stay within lanes. For people like my parents in-law, that’s a good thing! The aging population can see the end of their driving lives ahead, and automation is a way to preserve their mobility.
What do you bring to this job?
I have worked on a lot of startups and I bring that entrepreneurial spirit. I am also the course instructor for Tech Lab, where student teams get paired with startups and get to use Mcity for free or low cost to help them test their products. I enjoy the thrill of building something from the beginning.
What are your hobbies?
I have four kids and keeping them on track takes up most of my free time. My wife and I are definitely in zone defense at this point! I also do a lot of home brewing. The degree to which brewers share their recipes is an interesting and unusual thing about that community. It blows my mind. I have tried to pull that feeling into some of the work we do here. There are many areas where society and the company would be better off if we share upfront. Safety data for example. I try to convince these companies that it’s in their best interest to share results rather than be competitive because there are lives at stake.