What Self-Driving Cars Mean For Seniors and the Suburbs


Connecting state and local government leaders

The U.S. Conference of Mayors vice president focuses on getting his community excited for the “human aspect” of the disruptive technology.

Austin, Tex. – When many city leaders talk about the about preparing for the (always right around the corner) self-driving vehicle revolution, most are talking about the massive impact on infrastructure and public transit, or the questions that remain about what it will mean for the environment or public safety.

But Rochester Hills, Michigan Mayor Bryan Barnett argues paying attention to the people who are most likely to use these new ways of getting around is just as important.

“There’s all the technical things about getting your community ready with curbs and how your city is laid out from a planning perspective … I’m really passionate about the human aspect,”  Barnett told Route Fifty during South by Southwest earlier this month.

The current vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, hailing from the metro Detroit region, describes the emerging tech as a “real passion” of his. But he also believes the adoption of self-driving vehicles as an opportunity to increase mobility among populations who often have limited options.

“We talk a lot about the last mile with transportation, but most people live 10 years past their ability to drive,” said Barnett, a Republican who has served as mayor since 2006. “What [autonomous vehicles] will do for the disabled community, what it will do for the community that hasn’t had the ability to enjoy vehicles and personal car ownership … there’s a huge social impact I think that we are trying to understand.”

In November, Barnett’s city and AARP held an event to try to familiarize residents with the technology. Barnett believes in focusing on the part of the technology he can best control for his city of 75,000 right now: educating his residents. The idea is that creating acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology, can best position Rochester Hills to become an early adopter.

“You start to have those conversations; they get a little more public and companies start to take a look,” he said. Ultimately, by having residents that are “excited about the concept, not fearful,” Barnett thinks is the best thing he can do to get his city at the forefront of the movement.

He sees it as a real opportunity to provide services that simply do not exist in the region to date.

“We don’t have great public transportation in metro Detroit—probably one of the worst in the nation—so we look at this as maybe a way to bypass the traditional routes of public transportation and introduce public transportation in communities that look like mine: suburban America,” he explained. For a nation where half of the population describes where they live as suburban, the city of Rochester Hills could provide a representation of how America’s suburbs adopt autonomous vehicles once it becomes the norm.

To hear the full interview, from autonomous vehicles to meeting Katie Couric at South by Southwest, and more, check out the video above.

Our key takeaways:

On South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg running for President

“I think people will probably assume that what he lacks is experience based solely on a number associated with his age, but I think actually experience is probably his strength. He has seen in a Midwest city the challenges of recession, he knows how to talk to people in their homes, he understands the challenges many Americans are facing and I think he is going to surprise a lot of people. I was chatting with him yesterday, he’s excited for his big interview later today.”

“I think his experience as a Midwestern mayor is going to surprise a lot of people because that is where many people find themselves in today’s America.”

On Attending Civic I/O, the Mayors Summit at South By Southwest

“If you’re a football fan, this is sort of the NFL Combine time. I think this is sort of like combine for the mayors—I mean, you’re stretched, you’re pushed, you’re challenged, you’re asked to kind of thing about things differently.”

On U.S. Conference of Mayors Priorities: Infrastructure, Inclusion and Innovation

“Those three topics cover, apply and find a home in every city. Coastal cities, Midwestern cities, big cities, small cities. People everywhere are dealing with those three issues … We think we’ve got a winning strategy, it’s resonating in Washington.”

Mitch Herckis is the Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Route Fifty.

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