Jim Gawron

Game Changer Jim Gawron

Driven by Sustainability

Jim Gawron's passion for mobility transformation is not new, though initially his interest traveled in a different orbit, quite literally. When asked to describe himself in fifteen words or less, Gawron didn’t skip a beat. "A rocket scientist turned environmentalist creating a more sustainable world through the power of business."

Though Gawron smiled as he said it, he wasn’t kidding. After earning his Master of Space Engineering ‘11, he worked as a systems engineer in the aerospace industry for five years—leading a team that developed a satellite picked up by NASA on a $55M contract to Orbital ATK.

Bringing his considerable talents down to earth, Gawron is now pursuing a dual degree (MS/MBA) at SEAS and at the Ross School of Business through the Erb Institute. In 2017, Gawron was selected as one of 1,000 Global Talents from over 165 countries to participate in a nine-day sustainability innovation lab in Denmark, sponsored by the United Nations and several major corporations. He is now serving in his second role at Ford as an Autonomous Vehicle Strategy Intern.

I see southeast Michigan becoming the epicenter of this next revolution of mobility

Gawron’s expertise—and enthusiasm—prompted Dr. Greg Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, to invite him to lead a new study on the sustainability impacts of CAVs as part of his master’s thesis.

The results of the first phase of the study, published in Environmental Science and Technology in February, explored the tradeoffs of self-driving vehicles—the benefits, the efficiencies, and the current detriments, like the added weight of onboard computers, increased electricity demands, and aerodynamic drag of sensors. "In phase two of the research," said Gawron, "we started looking at actual deployments—specifically how CAVs would be used in a fleet—and projecting emissions over the entire mobility system. Looking through that lens, there are significant differences in impacts between private use, 'ride hail,' and ‘ride share.'"

Autonomous fleets have already hit the road in places like Phoenix, where Waymo is testing its self-driving minivans on public streets. Not far behind, General Motors plans to launch its own commercial driverless taxi service in 2019-20, and Ford is ramping up for 2021. Gawron noted that Ford plans to use their recent purchase of Detroit’s Michigan Central Station—a building abandoned now for three decades—as an "innovation hub" for teams working on mobility transformation.

While the future of CAVs has covered the distance from "impossible" to "inevitable" in little over a decade, sustainable outcomes will require sustainability professionals across a myriad of fields, including engineering, design, GPS technology, urban planning, and business.

"Energy efficiency is key," said Gawron, "and so is strategic deployment." In areas of urban sprawl, coordinating ride share fleets of electric CAVs with existing metro systems could solve the "last mile" problem for commuters, reduce congestion, and eliminate the wasted miles drivers spend circling for a parking space. Using the services of a CAV fleet instead of privately owned vehicles could also slash transportation costs by 50 percent for city commuters.

Gawron noted that the phase two research results—expected to be published early next year—showed up to an 87 percent potential decrease in overall energy and emissions compared to the baseline scenario of conventionally driven SUVs, trucks, and sedans. "If we move to an all-electric fleet of these autonomous vehicles that are shared and deployed in smart strategic scenarios, there’s definitely that opportunity—especially when you look in the long term over the next 35 years—with the projected de-carbonization of the electrical grid."

There are challenges, of course. One found by Gawron’s research team turned out to be the "unintended consequence" of energy usage and emissions from the bandwidth required for high-definition mapping. Gawron hopes that the CAVs can eventually be designed to be more self-sufficient.

Keoleian noted that the three other members of the research team—analysts and researchers at Ford—are all U-M alums, including SEAS alumni Robert De Kleine and Hyung Chul Kim, and Ross School of Business alum Timothy J. Wallington, who also serves as an External Advisory Board Member at CSS. "It’s a really exciting time in transportation with so many innovations happening," said Gawron. "I’d really like to be a part of that, right here in Michigan."

At the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, systems-thinking is integrated into all of our programs, from behavior, education, and communication to landscape architecture, conservation ecology, policy and planning, and informatics.