Self-driving vans hit Grand Rapids streets

A fleet of five self-driving shuttles hit the road Wednesday in an effort to help people who have less access to transportation get around town.
Published: Oct. 5, 2022 at 5:49 PM CDT
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GRAND RAPIDS, MN. (Northern News Now) - A fleet of five self-driving shuttles hit the road Wednesday in an effort to help people who have less access to transportation get around town.

The partnership with MnDOT and May Mobility will provide 70 different stops throughout the city of about 11,000 people.

At a news conference Wednesday, state and local leaders touted the pilot program that will give more transportation access to older generations and people with disabilities.

Myrna Peterson is a Grand Rapids resident and uses a wheelchair to get around.

“I drive my wheelchair,” Peterson said, “I average about 12 hundred miles a year.”

Peterson helped launch the driverless shuttles at an event at the Grand Rapids Fire Department. With the help of her friend, she launched confetti into the crowd. Her wheelchair is motorized and lasts about 17 hours on a full charge.

“I can get from my house to the other end of town in about 40 minutes,” she said.

Peterson used to be a school teacher before suffering an accident that left her with less mobility in her body. Getting vans that were wheelchair accessible was a priority for her.

“For me it’s not about the technology,” she continued, “it’s about providing quality of life for people like me, that cannot drive.”

The five shuttles are called “goMARTI” vans. Three of them are ADA and wheelchair accessible.

“Everyone deserves a quality of life and that’s my passion,” Peterson said.

The vans use a series of sensors called “ouster pads” that are located outside of the vehicle. They’re in the front and back of the van and on the roof and act like eyes so the van can sense what is around it.

The shuttles are fully driverless though. There are safety drivers in each van that can take the wheel if need be.

“I’m here for safety purposes,” Wade Fauth, one of the drivers, said.

He’s lived in Grand Rapids for 21 years and decided to take up a safety driver position after he retired from work.

“I’m enjoying it immensely, learning a lot, working with a great group of people,” Fauth said.

The vans are free for users for 18 months and will cover 17 square miles in Grand Rapids. At the news conference, U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D) talked about the importance of making sure everyone can use the vans.

“When it comes to getting people who are in wheelchairs or have mobility issues,” Klobuchar said, “to grocery stores or their medical appointments.”

She said that pilot programs like this one could spur other projects nationwide.

“It is only fitting that Minnesota with three pilot projects, including this one right here in Grand Rapids, is on the forefront of trying out new ideas,” she said.

Klobuchar also tested out one of the shuttles.

“I just know I’m not driving,” she said.

The vans are available Tuesday through Friday weekly. Hours of operation run 2:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.

For more information on the goMARTI vans, you can find it here.