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A look into autonomous vehicles on Michigan State's campus

MSU Mobility's autonomous bus will be taking passengers spring 2022

November 17, 2021

Michigan State University has worked hard to pave the way for autonomous vehicles. The most recent addition to MSU’s growing autonomous ecosystem: an electric autonomous bus.

MSU Mobility is an organization responsible for the creation and study of MSU’s autonomous vehicles. The group focuses on researching and developing systems of communication and control for autonomous vehicles and their environment. Researchers spanning a wide range of disciplines have worked together to transform MSU’s campus into a live, connected network ideal for studying all areas of autonomous mobility. 

“MSU is a great community for innovating in the automation space,” assistant professor and MSU Mobility faculty Josh Siegel said. “I think one of the things that makes us really unique, other than having a campus and these vehicles that are really effective as platforms, is the way that MSU brings together faculty across disciplines to think through this future of mobility. And that's something that you don't get at many other places.” 

The Karsan Autonomous E-ATAK bus set to be deployed in early 2022

Starting spring 2022, students, faculty and the general public will be able to ride MSU’s electric autonomous bus on its non-stop, roundtrip two-and-a-half-mile route from the MSU Auditorium to the MSU Commuter Lot 89. The bus will only be deployed and open to passengers after it undergoes rigorous testing — it will have finished approximately 630 test trips on campus before it accepts passengers.

Although the bus offers level 4 autonomy, meaning it can operate without any human interaction,  it will be monitored by a trained operator at all times for safety purposes. 

“Having an electric autonomous bus of this scale in our backyard is incredible,” Michigan’s Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl said in a press release. “It gives us a hands-on tool that can help educate MSU students and staff members as well as the surrounding communities about the importance and applicability of vehicles of this kind in our society,” 

The vehicle was made possible through a collaboration with the Michigan Office of Future Mobility and Electrification, Karsan, Bus & Coach Company and automated transportation platform company Adastec. 

Autonomous bus complements MSU Mobility’s efforts to study all areas of mobility

The new bus is just a fraction of the extensive autonomous vehicle research being done on campus. 

The Connected and Autonomous Networked Vehicles for Active Safety’s, or CANVAS, 2016 Lincoln MKZ and Student Organized Autonomous Research Group’s, or SOAR, Chevrolet Bolt are two other large-scale MSU autonomous vehicles.

The Lincoln MKZ is CANVAS’s green and white autonomous vehicle mainly used as a research platform for graduate students and faculty to test new algorithms and expand the technology of autonomous vehicles.

SOAR’s Chevrolet Bolt is a part of the Society of Automotive Engineers International and General Motors’ AutoDrive Challenge. The competition tasked eight universities with creating a fully autonomous driving passenger vehicle. MSU’s Chevrolet Bolt was developed entirely by student teams.  

Both vehicles run through Spartan Village.

Some smaller autonomous vehicles, such as IPF’s Snowbot or Mow-bot, an autonomous snow blowing and lawn mowing robot also run on campus. This allows MSU to increase efficiency, save money and operate more sustainably.

The future is autonomous 

Autonomous vehicles are safer, more efficient, convenient and cheaper than the typical car, according to the United States Department of Transportation.

Some CANVAS faculty agree that autonomous mobility is the future and MSU can either develop or be left behind.

“There's going to be major disruption to our automotive industry, and it's going to impact all of us,” associate professor and MSU AutoDrive Challenge team adviser Daniel Morris said. “Our cars have been changing slowly over the last century, but now, we anticipate they're going to change dramatically in the next decade or two as they become more and more automated, as well as electrified.”

Historically, the state of Michigan has championed the automotive industry, and University Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and former acting President of the university Satish Udpa stressed the importance of staying abreast of mobility technology.

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“If (Michigan) loses the automotive industry, we will have lost a lot,” Udpa said. “So, we have to make sure that the state stays ahead of this technology. ... The future is exciting and Michigan is in the middle of all of these things because we have some of the largest companies here, we have some of the largest talent base here, and it's time that we got into the business of making sure we stay abreast of this technology and contribute to society, but these are exciting days.”


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