If the residents of downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan are on the fence about autonomous vehicles (AVs), they’ll soon have the chance to hop in an electric self-driving vehicle and post about their experiences on social media. The Grand Rapids Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (AVGR), with runs from Friday, July 26 until July 2020, is inviting the public to test self-driving public transportation for free.
AVGR – a coalition of nine Michigan companies, the city of Grand Rapids, and state of Michigan – is the first of its kind, bringing together enterprise and infrastructure to gather and analyze critical information with the goal of understanding the usage of autonomous vehicles in a city environment. The fleet of AVs, sourced from AVGR member company May Mobility, will operate alongside the City’s existing Downtown Area Shuttle (DASH) bus fleet and the public can hail an AV ride at any DASH West stop.
“DASH West was designed from the beginning to be user-friendly, allow people to easily travel around downtown and reach many of the major landmarks and locations in our city. Placing our first AV test on this route will connect this technology with people and the places they want to be,” says Josh Naramore, director of the City’s Mobile GR department. “Grand Rapids is the best real-world testing ground. We’ve brought together developers, urban planners, accessibility experts and community stakeholders to understand their needs and design solutions that will build trust and capability with riders.”
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AVGR will operate on the 3.2-mile existing DASH West bus route, which provides access to downtown and the city’s West Side and Heartside business districts. The route includes 22 stops, 30 traffic lights, and 12 turns, including three left turns. All autonomous vehicles have an attendant onboard when they are on Grand Rapids streets. As a commuter-driven service, DASH West provides connectivity to more than 10 City-owned parking lots and points of interest that include David D. Hunting YMCA, Kendall College of Art & Design, Grand Rapids Children's Museum, Van Andel Arena and Bridge Street Market.
“As populations are increasing in our cities and reliable transportation is becoming more of an issue with city congestion, May Mobility is using technology to improve how we move through urban places safer and more efficiency,” says Edwin Olson, founder and CEO of May Mobility. “Grand Rapids is an incredible city with a coalition of private business stakeholders who have supported this project from the beginning, and we're excited to be partnering on this project that will allow the community to drive less and live more.”
According to AVGR, the member companies of the group include the people who design and build the environments that Grand Rapid residents live, work, and move in every day: City of Grand Rapids, Consumers Energy, Faurecia, Gentex, May Mobility, PlanetM/Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), Rockford Construction, Start Garden/Seamless, and Steelcase.
“In Michigan, we’ve taken steps to nurture growth of electric and autonomous vehicles, and embrace our role as the nation’s automotive leader,” says Garrick Rochow, senior vice president of operations for Consumers Energy. “As Michigan’s largest energy provider, we’re excited to work with May Mobility and the City of Grand Rapids to help bring this technology and a clean energy future to West Michigan – powered by Consumers Energy.”
AVGR will focus on four areas during its operation:
- Feasibility: Little research has been done on the impact of mobility on our cities, yet every change in transportation technology has transformed them. The initiative is designed to gain insight and understand how autonomous vehicles impact existing urban structures.
- Accessibility: Address how autonomous vehicles improve or impact mobility for the elderly and people with disabilities and explore solutions around design of interiors and the urban environment to facilitate accessibility.
- Safety: Gather data and study safety in real-world operations. The initiative will explore how autonomous vehicles interact with automobile traffic, transportation, bicycle riders and pedestrians on city streets.
- Community: Prepare the local community and neighborhoods for the effects of autonomous transportation. This is a priority for the initiative and includes open sessions for city stakeholders for community visioning, goal setting, plan making and recommendations for public investments.
“Ensuring that inclusive and accessible transportation operations exist for people in communities, including Grand Rapids, remains a vital priority for PlanetM, and it starts with identifying solutions to today’s most crucial mobility challenges,” says Trevor Pawl, senior vice president of Business Innovation at MEDC. “Through this exciting collaboration with May Mobility, AVGR combines Michigan’s opportunistic approach to the advancement of new mobility technology with our commitment to improving the quality of life for individuals, by directly engaging with those most impacted in the community.”
Fleet operations for the May Mobility vehicles are housed and charged in the parking garage connected to the headquarters of Rockford Construction, which contains the necessary EV charging equipment and parking spaces to clean, maintain, and service the technology on the vehicles.
“Unlike any autonomous project of its kind, AVGR will achieve the type of systems integrations and learnings in months that typically take years,” says Mike Morin, principal of Start Garden and the Seamless coalition. “Our public-private partnership will create a direct local connection between the vehicles and the community, and the coalition will host conversations with community stakeholders to thoughtfully and intentionally address accessibility of the vehicles.”
Users are encouraged to post about their experiences and AV sightings on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #AVGR.
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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include literally anything that has to do with space, past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology.
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