Putting autonomous vehicles on city streets can take a lot of work.
A project to deploy four self-driving electric buses from May Mobility in Grand Rapids, Mich., this year required the involvement of Michigan Economic Development Corp., the city government and a half-dozen companies: public utility Consumers Energy, auto suppliers Faurecia and Gentex Corp., Rockford Construction, furniture giant Steelcase Inc., and venture capital fund Start Garden.
For MEDC CEO Jeff Mason, pulling these entities together to work on the Grand Rapids Autonomous Mobility Initiative was a smart way to participate in the changing transportation industry.
"For a number of years, we have seen this evolution of the automotive industry on the horizon," he said, whether that's electrification or autonomy or the changing definition of mobility. "Given our rich history with the automotive industry, we think it's both important in terms of the potential for growth of this economic sector and also in defense and protection of our automotive base that we've created over the past century in the state of Michigan."
The stakes are clear. Mason said 75 percent of automotive r&d in North America takes place in Michigan, and 96 of the top 100 automotive suppliers are headquartered in or have "significant operations" in the state.
This is why MEDC operates a mobility initiative called PlanetM. It has supported May Mobility, of Ann Arbor, Mich., since 2017. But it took Start Garden to bring the Grand Rapids AV initiative to PlanetM's attention. In 2015, Start Garden, of Grand Rapids, launched a business accelerator called Seamless, which operates the May Mobility shuttle program in Grand Rapids, with Start Garden connecting things in the middle, said Mike Morin, a Start Garden director.
This dense network of partnerships pulls from different parts of the community and then pushes benefits to other parts. "This isn't simply about mobility," Morin said. "It's about economic development and it's about how mobility is impacting some of those other core systems within a community around wellness, around access to food, around housing."
Morin has changed his driving habits in downtown Grand Rapids, trading in a $175-a-month parking space next to his office for a $48-a-month space near a shuttle stop.
"Michigan is a car-ownership economy," he said. "If this mode of transportation engages a new community in mass transit, I think that's a huge win. The notion of being able to change the architecture of the community and how we're using the assets — mainly land — is kind of the long-term win."
In Grand Rapids, the shuttles run daily on a regular route that May Mobility calls the most complex AV transportation route in the world and the longest autonomous vehicle route in Michigan. It covers three miles and 22 stops. The shuttles are full electric, seat five people and an attendant, and are wheelchair accessible.
Grand Rapids is the fourth city in which May Mobility has established operations. The company also has its vehicles running in Detroit; Columbus, Ohio; and Providence, R.I.