Inside Grand Rapids’ new driverless shuttles

Grand Rapids

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The future has hit the streets of Grand Rapids.

Starting Friday, a fleet of self-driving vehicles will begin taking riders along a 3.2-mile route through Grand Rapids.

May Mobility fleet in garage
A July 26, 2019 photo shows the fleet of May Mobility autonomous shuttles now running through Grand Rapids.

You can’t miss them. The odd-looking, four-door electric-powered vehicles can carry up to six passengers and reach a top speed of 25 mph.

A photo of an autonomous van in Grand Rapids. (July 25, 2019)
A photo of an autonomous van in Grand Rapids. (July 25, 2019)

And while there is a driver’s seat, there’s no need for somebody to sit in it. But don’t worry: A human will be at the joystick controls just in case.

“We’ve had the vehicles around downtown so that way they can learn the neighborhood,” said Alisyn Malek, COO and co-founder of May Mobility. “We wanted to make sure they know the roads and how different the drivers will interact with them. And we also, you’ll see fleet attendants in the vehicle. And our fleet attendants are there to answer questions, monitor the vehicle as well as help make sure the community is able to feel safe and confident in the transportation service.”

Unique? Yes. A novelty? No.

“It’s not a one-off. It’s not a toy-type service. It’s a real, viable service,” said Josh Naramore, director of Mobile GR, the city department that oversees mobility issues.

WHERE TO RIDE

For the next year, the vehicles will provide a free alternative for those who want to park and ride. They’ll follow the DASH West bus route, taking riders from the West Side area to Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood. Stops along the route include the Bridge Street Market, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Van Andel Arena and the David D. Hunting YMCA.

“So where the pink sign is, you can get that anywhere on the DASH West. There’s 20 stops,” explained Naramore.

The rides are free and will run Tuesdays through Fridays, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The project is part of the city’s Autonomous Vehicle Initiative, which involves nine companies and the city of Grand Rapids.

ROAD TEST

On Thursday, 24 Hour News 8 climbed aboard one of the autonomous vehicles with brains behind it: May Mobility Co-founder and CEO Ed Olson.

“I think the exciting thing about the May Mobility shuttle is that they’re not that exciting,” said Olson. “It’s a really smooth ride. You get where you’re going, and that fits into what we’re trying to do. We want to solve real transportation problems.”

Inside the vehicle, a video screen has replaced the front dashboard. Outside, 11 laser beams and 10 radar units constantly scan the 3.2-mile loop.

Map positioned on autonomous shuttle
A July 26, 2019 photo shows the route May Mobility’s autonomous shuttles will take in Grand Rapids.

“And so the vehicle knows where all the other cars are, where the pedestrians are. And inside its computer, it’s predicting what’s likely to happen over the next 10 to 15 seconds,” explained Olson.

On a sunny July day, the ride was flawless. But what happens when the snow flies?

“A lot of this technology is designed with the idea we live in Michigan. So being a Michigan company helps a lot,” said Olson.

Falling snow may require the attendant to take over. Heavy snow may park the vehicles.

The next big challenge: getting the public to use a driverless vehicle.

“And that means the vehicles not only have to get from point A to point B, but it’s got to be an experience that everyone wants to use,” added Olson.

The people behind the initiative are relying on riders. They’re hoping they will post their positive experiences to social media during the one-year test period.

Naramore says as more people come downtown to live, work and play, the project provides another alternative for getting around.

“We not only have to prepare for the future, we can help create it,” he said.

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