ANN ARBOR, MICH. - Mcity will launch a driverless shuttle service on the University of Michigan’s North Campus beginning this fall, giving the university another piece of autonomous vehicle technology that will keep it at the forefront of autonomous vehicle research.
The service will use two fully-automated, 15-passenger, all-electric shuttles manufactured by French firm Navya to transport students, faculty and staff between U-M’s engineering campus and the university’s North Campus Research Complex on Plymouth Road.
The driverless shuttles, the first of their kind in Michigan, will drive on University of Michigan roadways, putting them in the mix at times with regular vehicles driven by the public as they traverse a 2-mile circular route every 10 minutes.
Called the Arma, the shuttle is powered by a 33 kilowatt-hour battery pack that can be charged in five to eight hours. Its maximum speed is about 35 m.p.h.
The Arma is guided by an advanced global positioning system that uses information from up to 17 different satellites and is accurate to within an inch on roadways and has proven to be reliable even in light snow and rain.
But for all of its advanced technology, a ride in one of the shuttles is decidedly uneventful — and that might be its biggest selling point.
Officials at Mcity provided the media with rides in the shuttles on Wednesday as part of a broader demonstration of a number of autonomous vehicle technologies on the 32-acre campus.
The shuttles have seating capacity for about nine people and can hold more if they hold on to hand rails. Once passengers board, the shuttle silently and slowly makes its way along the pre-planned route.
Getting into the shuttle is disconcerting at first. The front and the back look pretty much the same because there is no steering wheel or driver. Slightly curved windows that allow the sun to stream in make it feel similar to an upside-down fish bowl. But the ride is quiet and smooth, slow and, well, rather boring.
Mcity officials say there will always be a safety monitor riding in the vehicle when the shuttle service is launched later this year. It also is equipped with emergency stop buttons that can be pressed by passengers.
For now, the fleet of shuttles will be limited to just two as Mcity and Navya continue to conduct research. But the fleet eventually could be expanded if the pilot service goes well.
Mcity, U-M’s public-private partnership for mobility research, has been testing the shuttle since December.
“This first-ever automated shuttle service on campus is a critical research project that will help us understand the challenges and opportunities presented by this type of mobility service and how people interact with it,” said Huei Peng, director of Mcity and a professor of mechanical engineering at U-M. “The shuttles will augment U-M’s busy campus bus service to provide another mobility option.”
Peng said the shuttles are just the latest innovation from Mcity, which is funded by the university, federal grants and about 65 automakers and other companies.
"The university has a record of innovation in virtually every aspect of mobility," Peng said. "That breadth and depth are some of the reasons why we were so well-positioned to create Mcity and provide a safe, controlled environment for vehicle testing."
Navya Technologies is a 2-year-old company based in Lyon, France.
Earlier this week, Navya announced plans to build an assembly plant in Ann Arbor where it will build the Arma shuttles. The company said it hopes to build 20 vehicles at the new plant by the end of this year and hopes to sell them to commercial buyers.
Navya's vice president for sales, Henri Coron, saidthe company hopes the research and testing the company is conducting with Mcity will help lead to commercial success for the shuttles.
"To create a market, we need a vision and a strong partner," Coron said. "The important thing is to create this market in the U.S."
Arma shuttles are on the road in countries around the world. They’re designed for use at places such as theme parks and large campus-like environments.
At U-M, Mcity and Navya will study how passengers react to the vehicle as a way to gauge consumer acceptance of the technology. Exterior cameras will capture the reaction and behavior of other road users, especially bicyclists and pedestrians.
The shuttle service will run on U-M roads during business hours to start. There will be no cost to riders.
Researchers at Mcity also are studying connected vehicle technology that helps cars send information to each other about changing road and traffic conditions, as well as vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.
"We believe here at Mcity that adding connectivity to automaton provides an opportunity to improve safety, mobility as well as reducing fuel use," said Carrie Morton, deputy director of Mcity.
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