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Lt. Gov. Gilchrist says first ride in driverless shuttle at WMU was ‘smooth’

Posted: 9:57 PM, Oct 21, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-21 21:57:22-04

KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Monday afternoon, Western Michigan University officials, along with a few engineers, debuted their highly-anticipated driverless shuttles. One sat in the lobby at Sangren Hall. The other was outside near the lawn.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist was one of the first to take a ride. 

“The fact that we have genuine true innovation, things that are new, different, and better for more people and more valuable, happen in the state of Michigan, is truly exciting.” he said during an interview with the media. “Gov. Whitmer and I support projects just like this that are going to connect our communities and connect people to the future of mobility.”

Gilchrist was joined by a few other people in the vehicle. They went out for four minutes, mainly driving on the sidewalks through parts of campus.

“It was smooth. It was good,” he said. “We dealt with pedestrians. We had to do a pretty tight turnaround. This is really impressive engineering work.”

Nick Goberville was one of the Western Michigan graduate students who worked on the project under professor Zach Asher. Together, along with the Michigan Department of Transportation and Pratt & Miller engineers, they created the shuttles and Monday was the kickoff party.

“This vehicle is 100 percent autonomous,” Goberville said. “It’s going to drive on its own. It doesn’t need any person to take control. There is always somebody in the vehicle as a safety operator that can stop the vehicle at any time.”

He said the shuttles are made for short trips that are no longer than a mile. They’re created to help people who are immobile get around small areas like a neighborhood, a college or business campus or to a bus stop from their homes. 

“This is part of the $8,000,000 Michigan Mobility Challenge which was a challenge to use technology to solve mobility gaps for seniors, people with disabilities and veterans across the entire state of Michigan,” said Jean Ruestman, administrator with  the Office of Passenger Transportation at MDOT. “For the next two weeks you’ll see it here on the campus of Western Michigan University.”

Taylor Ardnt is another student who worked on the project. She is an accessibility and compliance technician at the school who helps other disabled students, like herself, with day-to-day technologies that help them get around on campus.

She said driverless shuttles will be helpful to her community because it’ll help them find and keep jobs.  

“If a person with a disability does not have adequate transportation to and from where they need to go, the more likely that they are unemployed,” she said. “They can’t hold down a job because they don’t have good, reliable transit.”

Creators of the shuttles said their goal was to give them mobility which would help gain independence. The shuttles will remain on-campus until November, getting real-life passengers and putting their mission to the test. 

“It’s amazing to see things come full circle,” Lt. Gov Gilchrist said. “This is why we put forth these dollars to support these projects. It’s not about the innovation that the state can do. It's about the innovation that people in Michigan can do when we put the resources in their hands and create the conditions for them to be successful.”