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Driverless Shuttles Roll Into WMU

Andrew Robins

Driverless cars have arrived at Western Michigan University. Two autonomous shuttles are being tested as a way to help students with disabilities get around campus.

The small, four-passenger research vehicle maked almost no noise as it rolled away from the “flag poles” near Western’s Sangren Hall during a recent demonstration. The electric, battery-powered car looks like a square-ish blue-and-white bubble. It can carry four people but there isn't a steering wheel inside, a brake pedal, any other controls.

The $2.1-million autonomous shuttle project is part of the $8-million “Michigan Mobility Challenge.” The 2018 initiative that also involves an engineering company and the University of Michigan is looking for ways to improve transportation for the disabled. WMU engineering graduate student Johan Fanas says the shuttle won't get near its maximim speed while it's on campus.

"The maximum speed is 15 miles-per-hour, but we're gonna limit it four, or walking speed, because of the students walking around it, just to be safe."

Credit Andrew Robins / WMUK
A look at the inside of the four-person vehicle

To make sure that it stays safe, Fanas holds an X-Box game controller with a “dead man” switch. If he takes his finger off the button, the car stops. Although it will drive itself around Western’s campus, an operator will always be on board. Assistant Western engineering professor Zach Asher is in charge of the university’s part of the project.

"This is really safe technology but it is new technology, and accidents are not allowed at all."

To move without a driver guiding it, the vehicle needs a constant stream of data from its own on-board radar and other sensors. Engineering doctoral student Nick Goberville says there’s also a roof-top transmitter giving it directions.

"That allows the vehicle to basically operate within a precision of one centimeter of knowing exactly where it is located."

Asher says the autonomous vehicle is the most ambitious and complex part of the “Michigan Mobility Challenge.”

"We're offering a mobility solution for wheelchair users and combining that with autonomous vehicles, and it's sort of, really, aggressive."

Credit Andrew Robins / WMUK
The shuttle on display near the WMU "flag poles"

The vehicle was built by the engineering Michigan firm Pratt & Miller using some parts from an electric golf cart. The company’s project leader, Jeff Reece, says it’s taking a new approach to helping disabled people get where they need to go.

"Accessibility seems to be an after-thought. Vehicles get retrofitted and it's not designed-in from the beginning. We want to change that."

But Reece says driverless shuttles like this one aren’t quite ready to hit the road everywhere just yet.

"There's a lot of questions that need to be answered. And the technology is speeding ahead of any regulations or public policy. So, we're trying to understand that before it's too late."

One of Western Michigan University’s roles is to figure out an economic model for autonomous vehicles serving the disabled.

For the students working on the test program, like Johan Fanas, the car is exciting - much more exciting than his previous job working in a power plant.

"If you asked me one year back, I was like, 'What is an autonomous vehicle, what is it for?' And now, with this project, I see the importance of this technology and it's great."

The little autonomous car will be driving itself around Western’s campus during the test program that runs through October 31, 2019. When the project is complete, shuttles like it could be used to help disabled veterans get around at the VA Hospital in Battle Creek.

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Andy Robins has been WMUK's News Director since 1998 and a broadcast journalist for over 24 years. He joined WMUK's staff in 1985. Under his direction, WMUK has received numerous awards for news reporting.
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