(TNS) — ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Equipped with a "safety conductor," rather than a driver, driverless shuttles made their highly-anticipated debut Monday, June 4, on the University of Michigan's North Campus.
Two fully-automated, 11-passenger, all-electric shuttles built by the French firm NAVYA are now running 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, weather permitting. The shuttle service will launch in phases, beginning with a route at the North Campus Research Complex.
Mcity, UM's 32-acre connected and automated vehicle test site, plans to extend the route to the the Robert H. Lurie Engineering Center in the coming months. There is no cost to riders, and the two shuttles will cover the approximately one-mile circular route roughly every five to 10 minutes, depending on traffic.
While the shuttle only travels at a top speed of 12 mph on UM's North Campus, Mcity Deputy Director Carrie Morton said researchers are continuing to work to make the vehicles ready for more dense public roads in the future.
"We operate at a lower speed here inside the research complex, so we'll need to increase the speed later as we got out onto the roadways," Morton said. "We also want to understand how the shuttle interacts with the other vehicles around it, or actually, how do the other vehicles react to the shuttle? We want to get some experience on that before we turn it loose in even denser traffic environments."
UM is believed to be the first college campus to deploy driverless shuttles on public roads to transport students, faculty and staff, studying how passengers react to the vehicle as a way to gauge consumer acceptance of driverless technology.
UM student Kevin Lieberman, a third-year robotics PhD candidate, said he was anticipating taking a ride on the shuttle for months to see how it responded to other vehicles and pedestrians, becoming one of the first passengers on the shuttle Monday.
"It felt almost like when you're at an airport on the train," he said. "There were times when the vehicle would pause for a little bit and the human conductor would check that everything was OK before continuing. It was pretty smooth."
Morton said researchers have been working with NAVYA for more than a year-and-a-half at Mcity to learn about the capabilities of the shuttle and build confidence in its operation.
They've been able to map out the route for the shuttles by taking detailed lidar scans to create a path for the shuttles to follow. They've also developed a training plan for safety conductors who will be on board the shuttles.
In addition to lidar, which uses invisible laser beams to build a view of the surrounding environment, and GPS for localization, the two NAVYA Autonom Shuttles also are equipped with on-board cameras and Wi-Fi communications to capture data generated during operation.
Morton said there are still some limitations to the shuttles operating in inclement weather conditions, including hard rain and snow, which researchers hope to improve as they collect more data and technology improves.
"In heavy snow and rain, we have to suspend service, and that's because the lidar lasers scanning the environment have a little bit of difficulty getting a picture of the world around them in those situations," she said.
"Eventually if these are to be ubiquitous, they need to be able to take us anywhere, anytime," she added. "There's a lot of work going on in that space to improve the operation. This particular application is very conservative. We don't want to take any unnecessary risks."
©2018 The Ann Arbor News, Mich., Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.