Member Spotlight: Trevor Pawl, State of Michigan

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Trevor Pawl is Chief Mobility Officer at the State of Michigan. He leads Michigan’s Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, an office that sits inside the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, and works in partnership with the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and Governor’s Office. He has been with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation for nearly eight years, leading the Michigan Pure Michigan Business Connect program, PlanetM and the Michigan International Trade program, among other things.

Your career in Michigan state government spans over seven years — can you walk us through the progression of roles and experiences that led you to where you are now?

I started in economic development back in 2010, which was an interesting time for Michigan. The economy was coming out of a recession, and many sparks and steel machine shops — the manufacturing community that had won World War II and gotten us through the 20th century — had lost a lot of its customer base. For example, a company that used to do 80 percent of their work with a global automaker was now only doing 40 percent and had to augment that gap in revenue.

At the time, I was leading a program launched out of the Detroit Regional Chamber that helped these types of companies diversify. If a company did really good sheet metal fabrication, for example, and we knew that Boeing had a need in their supply chain, we would try to plug in the Michigan supply chain and give some of these auto manufacturers a chance to do a little bit of work in aero.

This program soon became the state’s exclusive platform for connecting buyers and suppliers, and it very quickly took off as we started working across 20 industries with companies from around the world.

Following that program’s success, I worked on Michigan’s export division (the state’s international trade program) and also supported the Pure Michigan Business Connect supply chain program.

Then in 2017, I turned my attention to the mobility sector. Since then, I’ve been tasked with leading the state program Planet M — which focuses on developing the state’s connections to places like Silicon Valley and Israel and developing smarter infrastructure in Michigan to improve the quality of life and strengthen economic development.

Given my experience in sparking and running state programs, Governor Whitmer tapped me as the Chief Mobility Officer to grow her new office on future mobility, and here I am.

What have been some of the most challenging or rewarding aspects? What are some of the areas you look back at and are most proud of?

When most people think about the future of transportation, they think of high tech, big cities, big money. The truth is, the real impact of the future of mobility often comes in low tech solutions, or even just in connecting things that haven’t been connected before — whether it’s creating better travel access within inner city Detroit, developing new ride sharing programs in northern Michigan to help persons with disabilities and the elderly travel with ease, or simply constructing a more efficient public transportation system.

Being in a state that leads in transportation and playing a critical role in not only moving our industry forward, but helping our citizens safely and efficiently navigate, has been the most rewarding aspect. It’s the deeper emotional and humanistic element tied to this role that makes it that much more fulfilling.

As a state government, we always strive to be as strategic as possible about the investments we place. In my experience, one of the more difficult challenges have been the situations where we’re forced to choose between the programs and regions to focus on and where to allocate our funds.

You’ve just been announced as the Chief Mobility Officer for the newly established Office of Future Mobility. Can you tell us a bit about the role of the new office and your goals for the first year?

The role itself was set up to accelerate the innovation momentum that’s already happening in the state. Ideally, this new role of Chief Mobility Officer and the Office of Future Mobility and Electrification will unite these efforts under one common vision to establish a strategy that is multimodal; a vision that includes bolstering our automotive industry via new modes of transportation (e.g. drones or electric vehicles). When it comes to electric vehicles specifically, we’ll be focused on attracting EV manufacturers to grow in Michigan, creating mechanisms to fund charging stations, developing driving routes for consumers and much more.

Our second focus area will be increasing, attracting and retaining talent in our state. Our workforce is evolving, and we realize the future of mobility will require new types of engineering professionals if we want to maintain our position in the industry. In fact, a recent study by the Michigan Mobility Institute predicts that by 2030 our country will need about 45,000 new mobility engineers that have computer-related skills.

At the end of the day, it’s about building a stronger state economy and safer, more equitable and environmentally conscious transportation for our residents.

What makes Michigan an especially interesting place for mobility and Industry 4.0?

We have an end customer density that is unrivaled. 96 of the top 100 automotive suppliers have a presence in Michigan, and for several high-tech growth markets (e.g. Silicon Valley or Asia) that have a high concentration of software companies needing rapid prototyping and low-volume manufacturing in North America, we can provide that via our deep and reliable manufacturing supply chain expertise.

When it comes to testing, which is so important for autonomous vehicles, Michigan houses four seasons testing environments. The American Center for Mobility, for example, is 500 acres of multi-environmental testing — including terrains that are urban, suburban, high-speed and more. You could also go up to the Upper Peninsula and test drones in the snow. It is our network testing sites that makes us the place in North America to transform an idea to a product.

If a company wants a piece of technology to end up in a vehicle, at some point, it will have to run through Detroit because this is where the buyers and the engineers sit. So our office plays a critical role in connecting the most innovative automotive technology in the world to these key players; essentially making us very much complimentary to the activity and development happening in places like Silicon Valley and beyond.

How does the new CAV corridor project fit into the State’s broader strategy and vision for the future?

This latest project is going to be a first-of-its-kind connect and autonomous vehicle (CAV) corridor in North America. By connecting Detroit to Ann Arbor via continuous next-gen surface infrastructure, we will be able to offer unprecedented CAV testing capabilities. And those testing capabilities matter: by 2040, up to 80 percent of US intersections will connect to vehicles and 90 percent of vehicles will share information with those same intersections, so understanding these interaction points will be critical to safe and efficient movement.

The state that prepares for 2040 the best is going to have the advantage. That’s why we’re being so intentional about finding partners like the ones we found for the corridor project to make this a reality as fast as we possibly can. Michigan is a natural fit; we’ve activated nearly 500 miles of technology-enabled corridors over the last five years through the Michigan Department of Transportation. We’re no stranger to installing the right software and hardware to make these corridors work. Our laws also allow this; we have some of the most progressive autonomous vehicle laws in the country. In fact, Michigan was the first state to legally allow AV testing without a human operator on public road of 28,000 miles. We feel like this is an opportunity to realize on a much larger scale all of the little successes we’ve had, whether on policy, infrastructure or economic development. Everything we’ve been working on can now be a reality along this new corridor.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Our office will be very intentional about growing the state’s venture capital ecosystem and working with any and all investors to better connect them to what’s happening in Michigan. It is via this strong network that we can influence where software startup founders look for funding and where investors look for new ventures.

We’re the second highest receiver of venture capital funds to mobility startups, but we still receive just a tenth of what California does. Unlike other regions, 94 percent of the funds to mobility startups in Michigan go towards hardware, but only 6 percent goes towards software — an imbalance I am determined to fix.

In my experience, once venture capitalists come to Michigan and see everything we have to offer — especially the companies and technology coming out of our universities — there’s natural intrigue; not only for what they could invest in, but also for their portfolio companies.

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