Autonomous shuttle cruises around WMU on trial run

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — A self-driving vehicle will soon be taking passengers around the campus of Western Michigan University.

The autonomous vehicle can carry up to four passengers, including a safety operator. It has a retractable ramp and was designed to accommodate a wheelchair.

The $2.1 million research project is a partnership between WMU, the Michigan Department of Transportation, the University of Michigan, Pratt & Miller Engineering, Kevadiya Inc., Robotic Research, Comet Mobility and Easterseals. MDOT is overseeing the development with funding from the Michigan Mobility Challenge.

Zach Asher, Ph.D., an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at WMU, said the shuttle is on a trial run scheduled to finish before the end of the month.

“It has a route that students would use to get to a variety of different buildings,” Asher explained. “It doesn’t operate like a train so it’s sort of not fixed on one route. It can go to multiple stops in any order.”

Sensors on the shuttle will detect if a pedestrian passes in front and apply the brakes. A safety operator assists passengers and can control the vehicle if needed.

“If there’s an obstacle in the path, it can sort of manually steer around it,” Asher said.

Graduate students have been busy mapping routes so the vehicle can learn how to navigate campus. Nick Goberville, a mechanical engineering student working on his doctorate, says the project has been challenging and rewarding.

“It’s kind of cool seeing students be so excited about it and wanting to know more about what it is and so a lot of people have been asking questions like ‘How does it work?’ ‘When is it going to be driving around campus?’ and if they can get a ride,” he said.

Johan Rojas, a mechanical engineering student pursuing a master’s degree, says autonomous vehicle research will provide crucial knowledge for generations to come.

“You can say it’s the future of transportation and so it’s great to be a part of this project,” Rojas said.

Researchers say they will need to complete the two-week trial before daylight saving time begins. The vehicle is not designed to handle snow and winter conditions.

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