WMU included in $2.2 million grant to enhance mobility for veterans

Contact: Deanne Puca
A rendering of the autonomous electric shuttle

The autonomous electric shuttle can hold up to four passengers at a time, or a wheelchair rider with two passengers.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Western Michigan University's College of Engineering and Applied Sciences will receive funding for a project to bring an autonomous electric shuttle to the Battle Creek Veterans Affairs Medical Center. The $2.2 million project—New Autonomous Mobility Vision for Michigan—is being funded through the $8 million Michigan Mobility Challenge announced by former Gov. Rick Snyder last year.

The challenge addresses transportation gaps for seniors, veterans and people with disabilities and includes a vehicle that is driverless, disabilities accessible and produces zero emissions.

The project is a collaboration with Pratt & Miller Engineering, WMU, the University of Michigan, Kevadiya Inc., Robotic Research, Comet Mobility and Easterseals. Pratt & Miller Engineering is the project lead.

"This mobility-focused initiative will improve transportation options for veterans," says Dr. Zach Asher, WMU assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who is the principal investigator for WMU's portion of the project. "The autonomous electric shuttle will provide veterans with extended hours of service at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center campus and make it easier for them to order and schedule services.

"We are committed to improving the quality of life for our veterans," Asher adds. "New autonomous technology can fill this mobility need now, and completing this project has the added benefit of enabling larger future projects that fill other mobility needs throughout western Michigan. With WMU's ever-expanding network of high-profile collaborators, we will be able to continue pushing innovative and practical automotive research."

Asher also said the project will involve making minor updates to WMU's Automotive Lab, including removing some old engines and testing equipment, setting up new computer workstations that can run vehicle design software and autonomous control simulations, updating the chassis dynamometer to run more advanced tests, and installing an electric vehicle charger.

"Our role in the project is to provide autonomous vehicle simulation analysis, environment mapping, and testing support in the western Michigan region," says Asher, who plans to hire two mechanical engineering graduate students to help with the project.

The technology does not utilize a driver, pedals or a steering wheel. However, there will be a safety operator in the vehicle at all times to take control, if needed, he explains.

The vehicle can hold up to four passengers at a time, or a wheelchair rider with two passengers. In the future, a larger-scale vehicle for 12 people also is planned.

The college will host an autonomous demonstration for the custom vehicle in fall 2019. At this time, it will launch a one-month pilot program that will run service between multiple buildings within the Battle Creek VA campus. The current manned shuttle service runs from 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The driverless pilot service will run after 4:30 p.m. and will be free to service members and their families.

To date, 13 projects have been funded through the Michigan Mobility Challenge in urban, rural and suburban communities throughout Michigan.

For more information, contact Asher at zach.asher@wmich.edu.

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