Mcity Driverless Shuttle now running on University of Michigan's North Campus

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

ANN ARBOR - University of Michigan's autonomous vehicle research facility, Mcity, launched its Driverless Shuttle on North Campus today.

The two shuttles took students and members of the media on inaugural rides around the 1-mile loop of the North Campus Research Complex. 

The fully automated shuttle, developed by French company Navya, can seat 11 passengers at a time and run on all-electric AUTONOM technology. Equipped with Iidar, the shuttle uses invisible laser beams to map its surroundings, as well as GPS.

The project has been over a year in the making.

"We first got the copy of these shuttles in December 2016," said Mcity director Huei Peng. "Of course, first we have to be familiar with the shuttle, we must build confidence. So we have been testing inside Mcity as well as a planned route and training conductors. So it has been about 17 months of preparation. It’s very exciting."

Huei Peng, director of Mcity, on board the shuttle (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

Peng explained that Navya has already deployed these autonomous vehicles to different countries around the world.

"It has been deployed in France, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, Singapore, Dubai and many other places. So even with all the engineering work behind it, we feel that we must be sure that it is safe, so 17 months (of our own research) went beyond the engineering work," Peng said.

Although they provide a mode of transportation for students, faculty and staff getting around the research complex, the shuttles are ultimately testing human interaction with autonomous vehicle technology.

University of Michigan students ride the shuttle for the first time (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"We are the first research institution that we’re aware of that’s actually deploying these with the intent of understanding the consumer acceptance of this technology," explained Mcity deputy director Carrie Morton. "We survey participants and passengers on the shuttle, and also other road users that interact with (it). We have cameras and microphones on board to try and understand how the consumers behave while they’re inside the shuttle and how that might change over time as their exposure and experience increases."

Each autonomous shuttle has a conductor inside for safety purposes who can intervene if necessary. 

Robert Haas, a former driver's ed teacher and current Mcity safety shuttle conductor, explained that the conductors have completed roughly 200 hours of training since November.

"Initially, we were doing just manual driving," he said. "So we have to be able to drive this thing with the (X-Box) controller 100%, parallel parking -- everything. They really, really drilled us on that. Then you have to pass a test, and that also includes the book knowledge and how the system works and the aspects of the shuttle itself. And then we came over here to train on the actual route over a couple of months. So we’ve been trained pretty thoroughly."

Lab director of Mcity, Greg McGuire, explains the shuttle research project on its inaugural ride with conductor Robert Haas (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

As for real-time testing on the roads, Haas explained he's seen it all. 

"I’ve had people running in front of me," he said. "I had some guy with the iPod headphones in working on the lawn, not paying attention, came right in front of the shuttle, so we had to do emergency stops, which I can do. I can stop that thing on a dime. 

"We’ve had bicycles, animals, trash and debris on the roadway. If there’s anything more than 6 inches on the roadway, it will stop for it. Anything smaller than that, it’s iffy. That’s why there still needs to be human intervention here. We’re not at the point yet where we can run it fully automated, although it’s designed to do that ultimately."

As for those who are hesitant about using the driverless shuttle for fear of safety, Haas has one simple message: "I would say come on aboard. It’s safer than anything you’ve driven and it’s certainly safer than your car. It really is. This vehicle is not going very fast, and that’s by design. There’s nothing to be afraid of, and they’ve got me. I’m not a potted plant. So I am a black belt at this thing."

(Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

University of Michigan students, faculty, staff and their invited guests can ride the shuttle.

It will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday approximately every 10 minutes on the North Campus Research Complex, weather permitting.

Riders can check the DoubleMap app on Mcity's website to track the shuttle's location in real time.

Shuttle stops are outside of Building 10 on the NCRC's north side, off Plymouth Road and Huron Parkway and on the south side in the NC91 parking lot, off Baxter Road.

For more information, visit the Mcity Driverless Shuttle website.

Copyright 2018 by WDIV ClickOnDetroit - All rights reserved.