(TNS) — Grand Rapids’ experiment with driverless shuttles is allowing the Michigan city to better understand the potential of a future with autonomous public transportation.

Data collected from the final five months of 2019 is allowing the city to gauge ridership, customer experience and what issues limit the autonomy of the shuttles.

“Being out in the world has helped us learn so much about what the technology is strong at and where we can augment it, but also how people interact with the service,” said May Mobility Chief Operating Officer Alisyn Malek.

The six-seat electric shuttles that traverse the existing DASH West can be driverless. But the fleet attendant positioned in the front seat will often take control of the vehicle around areas of construction.

Challenges also arise during heavy precipitation and traffic, and around vehicles that make quick lane changes or difficult turning movements like unprotected left turns and right turns at red lights.

“We’ve heard there are challenges around four-way stops,” said Josh Naramore, the city’s Mobile GR director. “Because the vehicles are so conservative, they won’t go unless there aren’t other cars at the stop."

May Mobility’s vehicles are programmed to nudge ahead at a four-way stop to see if another vehicle at the stop is going to move through the intersection, according to Malek. If no other vehicle moves, the shuttle will continue through the intersection.

At times, the fleet attendant will take over the vehicle’s manual controls to improve the ride. Malek said they are trained to prioritize safety, experience and autonomy, in that order.

May Mobility provided the city with a heat map that indicates autonomy patterns in Grand Rapids. Common areas of lower autonomy occur around turns and on South Division Avenue, south of Fulton Street. Higher autonomy occurs along Pearl Street.

Since Grand Rapids began piloting its autonomous vehicle initiative in late July, the fare-free shuttles have served about 390 riders per day. The program’s 44,477 total ridership for a little more than five months in 2019 far exceeded that of the pilot programs in Detroit, Columbus and Providence.

Monthly ridership in Grand Rapids increased from 7,059 rides in August to 9,439 rides in October before declining in November (8,177) and December (7,422).

Naramore said the decrease is common with DASH ridership as well during those late months and cited holiday breaks for local colleges, universities and businesses.

In December, 119 riders responded to surveys about the service. In their responses:

  • 94 percent said they felt safe knowing the vehicles could be self-driving;
  • 82 percent said they previously took The Rapid bus or DASH bus;
  • 45 percent took the driverless shuttle for work, while 21 percent used it for entertainment, 21 percent used it for errands, and 3 percent used it to get to school;
  • 72 percent said riding the shuttle would not cause them to try the DASH or other public transit, compared to 24 percent who said yes for the DASH bus and 12 percent for The Rapid or transit in another city.

Riders who filled out the survey varied by age from 16 to 70. Individuals in their 20s lead the way with about 26 percent of the responses.

Grand Rapids’s fleet of May Mobility autonomous shuttles drive a route that includes 20 passenger stops, 30 traffic lights, 12 turns and connects to 10 parking lots.

Officials behind the pilot program have already used feedback to make adjustments to the program.

The service started on a Tuesday-Saturday schedule but was adjusted to a Monday-Friday schedule in January in response to a demand for Monday rides and a lack of interest in Saturday ridership. The change resulted in an average of 465 rides per day on its first two Mondays.

In December, the city also launched a wheelchair accessible shuttle. Interested riders can schedule a pickup time at one of the stops along the existing route and be taken to another stop on the route. One rider used the service in December, and provided a positive experience, according to the city.

The DASH West did see year-over-year ridership decreases in October (6 percent), November (13 percent) and December (5 percent), but city officials say the lack of ArtPrize in 2019 was to blame for the decrease.

For all of 2019, Dash West increased its ridership by 5 percent with a total of 338,729 rides. The DASH North grew more significantly, with a jump from 117,920 rides in 2018 to 262,362 rides in 2019.

Route 19 also spiked in ridership from 106,747 in 2018 to 333,327 in 2019, while the fare-free Silver Line bus saw a 7.4 percent decrease from 110,043 in 2018 to 101,912 in 2019.

The Mobile GR Commission is slated to receive a presentation on the 2019 autonomous vehicle and DASH data on Thursday, Feb. 6.

City officials have also begun talks to consider if they will extend the pilot program for the autonomous shuttles on the DASH West route. No decisions have been made.

The pilot program is slated to run through July 2020. Grand Rapids paid $250,000 of the $750,000 price tag to host the pilot, with private sector partners and May Mobility picking up the rest.

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