Driverless cars hit city streets


All autonomous vehicles have an attendant on board in case of emergency. Photo by Ehren Wynder

Grand Rapids’ first driverless cars hit the road late last week.

Through July 2020, the Grand Rapids Autonomous Vehicle Initiative (AVGR) aims to prove civic infrastructure and operational capabilities of the growing autonomous vehicle market.

The city partnered with May Mobility, the manufacturer of the driverless vehicles, as well as Consumers Energy, Faurecia, Gentex, Rockford Construction, Start Garden, Seamless and Steelcase. The pilot was announced in September 2018, and all partners in the coalition are contributing either direct or in-kind funding to the initiative.

Edwin Olson, founder and CEO of May Mobility, said as urban populations are increasing, reliable transportation is becoming more of an issue with city congestion. May Mobility is using its technology to make urban transit safer and more efficient.

“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,” he said.

The 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 20 stops, 30 traffic lights and 12 turns, including three left turns. All autonomous vehicles have an attendant on board when they are on Grand Rapids streets.

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.

Shuttles will run 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. on Saturdays. 

“The idea was we wanted to be able to have people take advantage of it,” Mobile GR and Parking Service Director Josh Naramore said. “Maybe if you don’t work down here, you can’t make it down here during the week, but Saturdays we have a lot of cultural events. We have a lot more people coming into the city, and you can still use that service.”

Shuttles should arrive at each stop every four to six minutes. The DASH service will continue to operate during the trial period, and both services are free to the public.

The fleet will consist of eight, four-passenger vehicles, and at least four will always be in service during the trial period.

Fleet vehicles are housed and charged in the parking garage connected to the headquarters of Rockford Construction, 601 First St. NW, which contains the necessary EV charging equipment and parking spaces to clean, maintain and service the technology on the vehicles.

Shuttles are based on the Polaris Gem e6 electric vehicle and have a top speed of 25 mph. Vehicles come equipped with emergency controls at the front to be operated by the attendant during the trial period.

AVGR will focus on four areas during its operation: feasibility, accessibility, safety and community. When the trial ends in July 2020, partners on the project will conduct an evaluation and decide on changes going forward.

May Mobility was launched in 2017 as an autonomous vehicle startup and is based in Ann Arbor.

The company deploys fleets of driverless vehicles for both governmental and business customers.

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