Grand Rapids in on the cusp of being the first cold weather, rural community to deploy autonomous vehicles (AV) – maybe in the world! That’s pretty exciting but I feel like I’m burying the lead because there are so many good things included in this pilot project. Their focus is on access, especially for folks who cannot get driver’s licenses and becoming a hub for autonomous vehicles, starting with getting kids interested in trained in the schools.
I spoke with Myrna Peterson about the project. Originally from Iowa, Myrna moved to the area many years ago; she is a former teacher. She has been in a wheelchair since a serious car accident in the 1990s. She has unique experience understanding the need for accessibility and understanding the need (and how!) to get kids involved in educational opportunities that will lead to jobs. But of course she’s not doing the work alone. There are a host of project partners, including the Blandin Foundation, Mobility Mania, several economic development leaders, research and academic partners and private sector partners, such as May Mobility, the AV experts.
The plan is to create a 12-mile route to local hotspots, such as the grocery store, church, schools and communal living settings. The AV goes about 25 mph, so the path will stick to slower roads. (So smart to avoid annoying other vehicles driving on 169!) Broadband plays a role both in helping the AV’s with offloading (a lot) of data and connecting that data to the back office. It also allows riders to connect to the AV app to make reservations and otherwise communicate. The AV collects data in the environment and uses Multi-Policy Decision-Making system to as a brain to drive. (Learn more on the May Mobility site.)
The need for AV to collect data has opened a door to looking other use of sensors and spurred discussions with Smart North. Now the community is looking at smart street lights and tech hubs. The community is also making sure that the AV experience meets the needs of all riders, which means wheel-chair accessible, accommodating visual and hearing impairments and more. They are looking to not only be ADA compliant but to be comfort-forward and welcoming for everyone, which is how you get people to use the AV. There will be an attendant on the AV to make sure everything is going smoothly.
But as I mentioned, this goes beyond a ride. They are working with the schools to create programming and opportunities for students to learn more about AV, starting with a STEM camp this summer. They are working with the K12 schools, local colleges and are working to create apprenticeships. They are also planning to leverage the shuttle project to showcase the region’s innovative mobility program through Smart Rural Mobility seminars where the Grand Rapids community members will have an information sharing forum, and they will be empowered to share their mobility stories with other government leaders and technology companies. So, not only will Grand Rapids be the first cold weather, rural AV community but the people in and from the area will be leading experts. It’s an opportunity for a whole new industry cluster.