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Self-driving shuttles in downtown Grand Rapids make updates as demand increases

The AVGR adds new disability-accessible vehicles and route updates. It anticipates to hit 50,000 riders in six months.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Grand Rapids’ autonomous shuttles are six months into their year-long pilot program with the city. With current ridership, the service will reach 50,000 passengers by Wednesday morning. 

“We see ridership growing month over month,” said Josh Naramore, the Mobile GR and parking director for Grand Rapids. “We are seeing about 400 people a day ride the vehicle. It only seats six people at a time. With only a few vehicles in service a day, that’s a tremendous response we’ve seen from the community.”

The Autonomous Vehicle Grand Rapids (AVGR) shuttles are made by Ann Arbor company May Mobility. There a few moving around downtown Monday through Friday. It is free for anyone to ride and follows the existing DASH West Route.

Inside the shuttle is an attendant to take over if something needs modifications, or if the weather makes it difficult to run in auto mode.

A fleet attendant for the AVGR shuttles said May Mobility has made changes to the route in the past six months, responding to the environment and passengers.

“Our route has improved,” said Paul Holloman, a fleet technician. “May Mobility pays attention to our input and the rider input. They had some issues where the vehicle would stop a little too early or too late. So, they made that smoother. They’ve slowed down the speeds on Ottawa too, to make it safe.”

New this month, the company added a new on-demand shuttle with wheelchair accessibility. This makes the transportation service comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As far as safety goes, Naramore says overall the shuttles have not caused any major issues on the roads.

“There have been a couple of little crashes along the way, but no injuries,” said Naramore. “We get specific reports, and the one I’m aware of, it was in manual mode and it was like a fender bender.”

RELATED: Self-driving cars hitting the roads in Grand Rapids

Riders on the shuttle say it can often get them where they need to go faster, because of the smaller vehicle.

“I live downtown, so it takes me home,” said Remy Lee, a passenger on the shuttle. “It runs every eight minutes or so, so it’s really convenient.”

Other drivers were shocked to see the self-driving technology in person.

“I didn’t know that until I heard the guy say, ‘yeah, sometimes I’m not driving,’” said Dominic Verhoeben, also a passenger. “It was the car driving.”

Holloman said it’s incredible being on the ground floor of this technology.

“It feels like a ghost is driving,” said Holloman. “The steering wheel moves, the brakes will apply, the turn signal will come on, and you can feel it turn on its own. I was watching things like this on the Jetsons as a kid. It’s kind of interesting to see it happen right in front of me.”


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