Editor’s note: The Grand Rapids City Commission on April 27 approved a one-year extension of the city’s autonomous vehicle pilot program.
GRAND RAPIDS — The autonomous shuttle that runs through downtown could transition to an on-demand format with new vehicles under a proposal before city officials to renew the pilot program that’s set to expire on April 30.
The Autonomous Vehicle Initiative led by Mobile GR, Ann Arbor-based May Mobility Inc. and various private sponsors started in July 2019. The program consists of four autonomous shuttles that loop in a 3.2-mile route around downtown from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays, giving riders free trips around town. A fifth, wheelchair accessible shuttle is also available upon request.
City commissioners this week will consider extending the program, which would cost the city $50,000 plus in-kind services toward the project. May Mobility is working to secure private sponsors to cover the rest of what is expected to be a roughly $1 million, one-year extension.
If extended, the scheduled route would be replaced with on-demand service that riders can request by calling a phone number or through a smartphone app, said Mobile GR Assistant Director Justin Kimura. Riders might have to walk a block or so to get to the vehicle, he said.
“We’ve learned there is a public appetite for an innovative project like this,” Kimura said.
Ridership trends, learning opportunity
Ridership steadily grew since the pilot launched in July 2019 and peaked in January and February 2020 with about 11,000 riders per month, Kimura said. The shuttle had 7,422 riders in December 2019, according to a ridership survey.
The shuttle shut down in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and restarted in August with new safety protocols.
The December 2019 ridership survey showed respondents were primarily “frequent, experienced public transit users” who mostly used the autonomous shuttle for work or errands. Seventy percent of the autonomous shuttle riders reported using the service at least once a week. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said the shuttle “positively impacted” Grand Rapids, though respondents’ concerns included a lack of understanding about the program and a lack of trust in the technology.
Seamless Accelerator, a proof of concept platform for startups that was originally part of Start Garden, helped facilitate the pilot program by connecting May Mobility to private sponsors. Autonomous vehicles are “cool technology,” but the project is really meant to collect data to solve mobility needs in Grand Rapids, said Seamless Program Manager Kaylee Page.
“The private sector also can’t learn how to make autonomous vehicles without deploying them in public,” Page said.
Grand Rapids’ pilot program is “one of the most complex” autonomous vehicle initiatives of its kind, said Seamless Director Matt Benson.
“I’d love to see it continue and expand,” Benson said. “It is an opportunity to continue to show that (Grand Rapids) is both innovative but also focused on stuff that actually matters.”
Ridership has been down since the pandemic hit because of capacity constraints limiting trips to single riders or multiple riders who are from the same household, Kimura said.
Kimura said the pilot program serves multiple purposes, including replacing short car trips with the fully electric shuttle, reducing congestion downtown and providing free transportation. The pilot is also providing a case study on how city infrastructure supports or could improve to support autonomous vehicles.
“We’re in the very early stages of gathering that data, but we’re starting to build that for what may be needed in the future,” Kimura said.
May Mobility is also using the program to learn how to better adapt its autonomous vehicle technology. Currently the shuttles have attendants to override the autonomous vehicle if needed, which has been used to identify red traffic lights, Kimura said.
Proposed program changes also call for transitioning from Polaris GEM shuttles to Lexus RX450H hybrid vehicles.
If approved, the Lexus models would be equipped with sensors and new, improved hardware compared to the first phase of the pilot, Kimura said.
He expects the same operating hours to be offered if the program is extended. The Lexus models are not wheelchair accessible, so the existing Polaris GEM wheelchair shuttle would continue to offer that service for riders by request, Kimura said.
Adding the Lexus to May Mobility’s shuttle fleets is the company’s first autonomous vehicle technology integration into an original equipment manufacturer’s platform, May Mobility said earlier this year.
“Adding the Lexus RX450H to our fleet allows May Mobility to elevate the shuttle experience and expand the services and capabilities we can offer municipalities and riders,” May Mobility co-founder and CEO Edwin Olson said in January. “With this vehicle platform, we advance May Mobility’s mission to transform cities with safe, clean, and accessible autonomous shuttles.”
If extended, the autonomous shuttle program would be the city’s first on-demand transportation service and could potentially provide additional data about where people are seeking transit and how they use the service, Kimura said.
The fixed route currently has 20 stops and navigates through 30 traffic intersections.
“Transit is generally on predicted routes with schedules,” Kimura said. “We’re trying to find the middle ground and provide a shared service that’s a little more tailored to the customer. I don’t know if we’ll ever put a completely driverless shuttle out there, but the technology we’re developing will help us to get pretty close to that if we don’t get there.”
The program’s biggest challenges so far have been navigating heavy precipitation and traffic as well as construction. People have used it similarly to how they use The Rapid’s Downtown Area Shuttle, or DASH, routes. Ridership surveys have reported a positive overall experience, Kimura said.
“For some of our riders, this was their first experience with public transit, and after their experience with this they were more inclined to try other forms of public transit,” Kimura said.