A new autonomous-vehicle pilot project underway at the University of Michigan will give undergraduate students an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with this emerging technology.
When students take a ride on the first-ever driverless campus shuttles in Ann Arbor this fall, they’ll ride along with classmates and peers who are helping collect data about the experience so the university can better understand how people react and interact with a driverless mobility service, said Carrie Morton, deputy director of Mcity, a public-private partnership led by the University of Michigan that operates a 32-acre automotive “playground” and testing facility on Michigan’s campus.
Mcity will debut two 15-passenger buses programmed to navigate a nonstop, two-mile route between two popular locations on the North Campus. The shuttles will be available at the Lurie Engineering Center and the North Campus Research Complex every few minutes.
The compact ARMA shuttles — fully autonomous, automated and electric people movers — are manufactured by NAVYA, a French startup company that announced this week it would establish its first North American assembly plant in Southeast Michigan.
After its launch, the shuttle service will collect data on driverless vehicle safety and operation, studying passenger reactions as well as the behavior of other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians that encounter the vehicle.
And throughout the pilot, undergraduate students will act as a concierge on the vehicle and will help with data collection, including conducting rider surveys and monitoring usage patterns, keeping open the possibility of altering the route and hours of operation as the technology allows and the customers see fit.
Because so many questions remain about self-driving technology, Mcity is hoping to utilize talented students and its state-of-the-art facility to better understand where this technology is headed, Morton said.
“What we’re trying to do over at Mcity is open up education and innovation pipelines so we can gain further insights into the future and educate the talent of the future,” she told EdScoop. “The best way to do that is with hands-on learning.”
“This … 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 the Roger L. McCarthy Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan, in an official statement. “The shuttles will augment U-M’s busy campus bus service to provide another mobility option.”
But beyond providing a service to the university community, Morton said that deploying these shuttles will also allow the university to learn what works, scale it and share the lessons with other colleges.
Michigan, a state virtually synonymous with the auto industry, has been a trailblazer in the effort to make self-driving vehicles a reality in the United States.
Last year, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that would allow companies to test driverless cars on public roads throughout the state, with or without a human driver behind the wheel.
“We are becoming the mobility industry, shaped around technology that makes us more aware and safer as we’re driving,” Snyder said after legalizing autonomous vehicles in 2016.