A state-funded transportation project centered around autonomous vehicles has come to WMU. Throughout late September and October, research testing the feasibility and design of driverless shuttles will be conducted on campus.

The project is called the New Autonomous Mobility Vision for Michigan and has received more than $2,000,000 million dollars from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) thanks to the Michigan Mobility Challenge. 

According to Michigan.gov, the Michigan Mobility Challenge is aimed at funding “multiple innovative pilot transportation projects of varying sizes that can solve mobility gaps for seniors, persons with disabilities and veterans in urban, rural and suburban communities throughout the state of Michigan.” Governor Gretchen Whitmer announced the four pilot projects around the state that were going to receive a combined $8,000,000 million dollars of funding from the Michigan Mobility Challenge earlier this year.

MDOT’s Michigan Mobility Challenge initiative is an aggressive method of seeking out new and innovative ways of improving transportation technology in the state of Michigan to give people with mobile disabilities the same opportunities and freedoms as others. The New Autonomous Mobility Vision for Michigan is focused on bridging that gap by making autonomous shuttle transportation more widely accessible.

“This project, which is a collaboration between local companies and universities, helps solidify the State of Michigan as the continued epicenter of automotive engineering, whether its autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, ride hailing, etc. It increases talent in industry and education around new automotive engineering trends,” said Dr. Zach Asher, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and principal investigator of the project for WMU. 

Pratt & Miller, an engineering firm based out of New Hudson, MI, is leading the project. Research for this project is being conducted by WMU, The University of Michigan, Comet Mobility and Easterseals. The project began in November 2018 and is expected to be complete by December. However, the shuttles will only be on campus from mid-October to the end of the month.

Dr. Asher has enlisted the help of graduate students Nick Goberville and Johan Rojas to help conduct research related to WMU’s role in the project. 

“Johan and I have been involved in multiple aspects of this project,” said Goberville. “We have developed a vehicle model for dynamic simulation, led the logistics of launching the pilot on WMU's campus, currently working on an in-depth cost-benefit analysis, been given proper safety operator training for vehicle operations.”.

Pratt & Miller brought the first autonomous transportation vehicle to campus on September 19th and expects the next one to be on campus by early October. The shuttles utilize a plethora of sensors, cameras, and GPS receivers to understand its position in space and travel around campus. Goberville explains that an antenna was recently installed on top of Sangren Hall to help gather and deliver GPS data to the shuttles. 

“By putting all this together with additional programming, the vehicle can operate on it's own,” he said.

The first real-world application of this technology will be at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center to help extend hours of service as well as provide an easier way for patients to access scheduling services.

After the engineers finish their survey of the area and fine-tune the programming, the shuttle will be run from Sangren Hall to the fountain outside Sprau Tower. The shuttle will not exceed 4 mph and will have a safety operator on board at all times while it is being tested on campus.

Goberville is very optimistic about the future of the College of Engineering at WMU since work on this project began.

"This is an extremely exciting time to be a student at WMU with technology like this coming to campus,” he said. “Research in Autonomous Vehicles has become a main focus in Dr. Asher's lab at the College of Engineering. There will be a continuous flow of exciting projects and research like this coming to WMU in the future.”

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