Driverless shuttles gain steam in Michigan


LANSING — After Michiganders tested the first wave of driverless buses, the greatest gripe was the lack of music.

“There’s this clear trend where people were not commenting on the autonomy at all,” said Kelly Bartlett, the Michigan Department of Transportation’s policy advisor for autonomous vehicles. “One of the main reactions people had was ‘you should add music.’”

That’s good news for officials worried about the public’s more substantive concerns about getting on a bus without a driver.

These buses won’t be making any cross-state treks just yet. As slow-moving vehicles, they can’t go faster than 25 mph. They’re also only programmed for narrowly designated geographic areas, Bartlett said.

“One person said an autonomous vehicle is just like your grandmother except it doesn’t forget to turn off the turn signal,” he said.

Nationally, people have mixed feelings about autonomous vehicles after a driverless Uber collided with an Arizona woman who died. 

A poll by HNTB Corp, an infrastructure design firm, found 51% of those surveyed believe driverless cars are safer than people-driven vehicles.

But this figure goes up when people ride in one, Bartlett said.

“As people have direct exposure to an automated vehicle, their acceptance level goes quite high,” Bartlett said.

Indeed, a 2019 study from the University of Alabama found 65% of people who rode in a driverless vehicle said there should be fewer restrictions on autonomous vehicle testing, whereas 76% of the pedestrians who haven’t interacted said the current regulations were necessary.

While concerns about collisions remain, the HNTB survey found accessibility of autonomous driving to people with disabilities was the most recognized benefit of the technology. 

A recent state test run at Western Michigan University of a four-seat driverless shuttle program for people with disabilities shows an on-demand driverless service can be more available than one requiring drivers, said Christopher Andrews, the director of mobility & innovation at Pratt & Miller Engineering.

Paratransit services  use drivers for individualized routes. They work for the people who use them, but are limited in supply, Andrews said. 

Pratt & Miller specializes in automation technology for defense programs and mobility industries. 

The company won $2.1 million from an $8 million mobility challenge spearheaded by MDOT, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and other state agencies. 

The challenge encouraged companies to apply improvements in automation technology for veterans, seniors and people with disabilities.

“How do we move the ball forward in making sure everybody has access to mobility?” Andrews said.

The shuttle took years to develop for its month-long test run on Western Michigan’s campus, Andrews said. 

“We’re going through a phase where there’s a lot of learning that still needs to be done while the technologies also mature,” Andrews said. “Every time we do some of these engagements and pilots, we learn a lot.”

Michigan is already home to automated busing operations in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids.

Bedrock, a real estate firm in Detroit, provides driverless buses for its 150,000 employees. The vehicles come from the Detroit-based May Mobility, which also opened a downtown Grand Rapids shuttle in July 2019.

The University of Michigan’s North Campus also has had an automated shuttle for students since March 2019. 

These programs are all free for riders so that companies can study the technology without federal consumer regulations, Bartlett said. But safety regulations are still in force and each vehicle has an attendant.

“The key is ‘what need are you addressing with it?’” Bartlett said. “If all this is just a demonstration, there won’t be long support and there won’t be long-term need for it.”

While Michigan is a leader in robotics innovation that allows driverless vehicles to communicate between themselves and the road, there is plenty of work to be done, he said.

“Vehicles need to become smarter,” Bartlett said. “The data it might provide [now] might just be ‘I’m a car, I weigh this much, I’m traveling this fast’ and that’s it.”

As cars get more technical, they can provide more information to sensors on the street, and to sensors on other cars, he said.

Still, the shuttles available now and the projects in development can take cars off the road and provide an additional transit option for Michiganders, he said.

“Even with the car fleet we have now we’re able to do some tangible safety things in terms of traffic management,” Bartlett said. “It truly is an investment for here and for the future.” 

Provided to City Pulse by Capital News Service


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