Inspired by automotive, mobility innovation moves much more than people

Around the globe, a Ford F-Series truck is sold every 29.3 seconds, with sales adding up to more than 1 million vehicles in 2018, according to reports from the automaker. The popularity of the Ford F-150 itself has been credited with helping Ford remain competitive in the automobile market.

The F-Series dates back to the 1940s, and while today’s F-150 is technologically advanced, the truck might not seem like the most logical inspiration for modern robotics. But for Shadi T. Mere, chief executive officer of Ann Arbor-based Bedestrian, the F-150 is a touchstone for “understanding the really long-term aspect of making something like this operational, servicing it, making sure it’s safe.”

Shadi Mere is chief executive officer of Ann Arbor-based Bedestrian. Photo by Nick Hagen.
His company is partnering with Beaumont Health to introduce robots that serve hospitals by transporting lab supplies from the pharmacy to the cancer center in heated and cooled compartments. Bedestrian is using this initial application to help determine hospital cost savings per robot, which they currently estimate to be between $80,000 and $230,000. From there, the company hopes to expand their work with Beaumont and move into other health-care systems, senior living facilities and pharmacies.

Bedestrian is just one example of a mobility company that is innovating to move goods and services in new and efficient ways -- and they’re succeeding in part by taking inspiration from the design and manufacturing strength of Detroit’s automotive industry.
Eventually, Bedestrian wants to expand the uses for these autonomous machines into communities to deliver medical supplies to people at home, helping serve a growing number of people who want to age in place. Living longer at home in familiar, well-supported communities rather than in nursing homes and other institutions can positively impact quality of life for America’s aging population, says Mere.

In a market segment with huge potential, Mere believes the Ford F-150 provides a case-study in managing millions of vehicles with millions of parts--wisdom that he can apply to Bedestrian. “You really need to kind of make your vehicle with that same approach,” he says.

Bedestrian is partnering with Beaumont Health transport lab supplies by robots. Photo by Nick Hagen.
For resources, Detroit region is first choice

Bedestrian isn’t alone among software companies, manufacturers and robotics companies choosing Southeast Michigan as a base for operations. Among the reasons for choosing Metro Detroit over Silicon Valley, Mere cites the automotive talent in the region, world class hospitals and universities that are especially important for his company, community support from mobility-focused organizations like Planet M and a much lower cost of living and doing business.

All of these factors are encouraging companies to leverage skills and innovations from the auto-industry to develop mobility technology--and to do it in Michigan.

Part of the reason for this trend is the nature of robots themselves. Although people may envision robots as delicate and toy-like, Mere says Bedestrian builds robust machines that incorporate disruptive elements of engineering much like Tesla and Apple, to create an easy user interface. Critical to a successful product is automotive technology that helps them create a durable product with a sleek design.

For FarmWise, the Detroit region has already proven its manufacturing expertise. Photo courtesy of FarmWise.

Leveraging manufacturing experience

FarmWise is another company doing similar work in a very different sector. They are partnering with Roush Industries to manufacture robots that can weed crops on large farms, something that would reduce labor needs and the use of herbicides. FarmWise is based in California with a small team that’s mostly skilled in software and robotics. The partnership with Roush will allow them to scale up the manufacturing side of their company for their machines that essentially look like utility vehicles, albeit without windows or drivers.

Sebastien Boyer (left), chief executive officer, and Thomas Palomares, chief technical officer of FarmWise. Photo courtesy of FarmWise.
In a blog post, Thomas Palomares co-founder and chief technology officer of FarmWise outlined his reasons for manufacturing in Metro Detroit, saying that “robots are just another type of car.” Palomares emphasized that the region is home to “about 2,200 facilities conducting automotive research.”

In Roush, FarmWise found a company in this network that “could combine low-volume production, high-end manufacturing, experience in building robust long-lasting vehicles, and an ability to scale.” Roush combines manufacturing experience with a flexibility to do both small runs of hardware to facilitate multiple iterations in the development phase as well as larger ones when the robots go to market.

For FarmWise, the Detroit region has already proven its manufacturing expertise. Access to venture capital in the Bay Area may be important for a company like FarmWise–along with California’s large industrial farms–but they believe that Michigan has what it takes to actually make their robots.

Easing last-mile pain points

The Detroit region is increasingly important for software development as well, especially as it relates to mobility. “What's unique about southeastern Michigan,” Jake Sigal, chief executive officer of Tome Software says, “is that there's representation from every single OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and every single tier one manufacturer. They're all here. So, if you want to get groups of people together to collaborate, this is where it's going to happen. It's not going to happen anywhere else.”

Tome has worked on projects like the bicycle-to-vehicle safety (B2V) project to help vehicles recognize and register vulnerable roads users (VRUs), which are people on bikes, riding scooters, or pedestrians using cellphones or other beacons that connect with a car’s advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) to improve safety by avoiding collisions.

They’re also working with Ford on MoDe:Link, a program that’s being piloted in London, which will assist contractors and delivery people who carry items by bike or on foot, by providing them with supplies from a single van in a central location, so that everyone doesn’t need to have their own vehicle, thereby reducing the number of vehicles in highly congested urban environments.

Tome has worked on projects like the bicycle-to-vehicle safety (B2V) project to help vehicles recognize and register vulnerable roads users.

Like Bedestrian, MoDe:Link is addressing the last mile problem of how people or goods get from larger transportation networks to a specific address. Solving this problem could create more efficient and sustainable transportation networks and supply chains. And it’s important for Michigan that companies here are taking a lead on the issue.

In order for businesses like his to be successful, Sigal says that it’s crucial they have access to pre-competitive technology that will allow them to connect vehicles and other users across platforms so that, for example, a car built by one company can recognize an electric scooter built by another for the safety of both users. He also points out how groups like Techstars are connecting large operations with smaller ones, joining innovative solutions from companies like Tome with businesses large enough to “make a significant impact” as Ford could do with MoDe:Link.

“Seeing that large businesses are leaning forward is a great sign for southeastern Michigan,” he says. All this could help grow mobility technology beyond its historical roots in automotive manufacturing into an endless variety of applications.

Photos by Steve Koss, unless otherwise indicated.
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