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BBC Technology’s Golden Age: goMARTI Deployment in Grand Rapids, MN

Every member of the May Mobility team works tirelessly to make transit more sustainable, safe, accessible and equitable through autonomous vehicles (AV). So we were both honored and elated to have our goMARTI deployment in Grand Rapids, MN covered in the new series Technology’s Golden Age from the Consumer Tech Association and presented by BBC Storyworks.

A May Mobility vehicle pulls away from a hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.
A May Mobility vehicle pulls away from a hospital in Grand Rapids, Minnesota.

Bringing Autonomy to an Aging Population

goMARTI, which stands for Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative, is the first rural AV deployment to feature wheelchair-accessible vehicles. On top of providing free rides to the general public, this operation offers disabled and senior residents a level of freedom and autonomy they might otherwise lack.

A large portion of Grand Rapids population consists of seniors aged 65 and over, like many towns in rural America. Tom Pagel, city administrator for Grand Rapids, expressed his enthusiasm for goMARTI, saying:

“A big challenge with an aging population is transportation. And having that ability to have a vehicle at no cost bring you to a grocery store, bring you to a department store and then bring you home really is just going to be immensely valuable to them.”

Supporting Local Efforts to Improve Transit for Disabled Residents

In the course of launching this deployment, we were privileged to work alongside Myrna Peterson, an accomplished advocate for handicapped-accessible transportation and co-founder of the non-profit Mobility Mania. While her venture began as a fundraising event in 2015, it has since blossomed into a full-blown accessibility movement that aims to make Itasca County the most accessible county in Minnesota.

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Myrna was a key figure in the implementation of this project — particularly service to disabled residents — and quickly became a regular rider of May Mobility AVs. When asked about the impact of the goMARTI deployment, she commented:

“May Mobility has made a huge difference in our community for those people who aren’t as mobile. It gives them the opportunity to get accessible transportation to events in the evening and on weekends, to church on Sunday, to a concert, to one of their grandchildren’s sporting events or just out leisurely to have dinner with friends or family. I want people to enjoy a better quality of life rather than having to stay home because they can’t get there.”

Each AV deployed in Grand Rapids is overseen by an autonomous vehicle operator (AVO). These individuals are on-hand to help disabled residents enter and exit the vehicle, and can take control at any time. This support, along with affordable and accessible transportation, has allowed disabled residents in Grand Rapids to enjoy greater participation in local events and community activities.

Why Is goMARTI Significant for May Mobility?

May Mobility’s vehicles rely on a combination of processes for safe and efficient autonomous transit. First, they use sensors including radar, light detection and ranging (LiDAR) and cameras to read what’s happening around the vehicle. Then, our proprietary Multi-Policy Decision Making (MPDM) system interprets that data and uses it to instantly run thousands of simulations to choose the safest course of action.

Heavy snow and ice in rural areas like Grand Rapids can obscure AV sensors, hide road markings and create slippery surfaces that are almost invisible creating unique challenges for AVs. Since the intensity of this weather changes from day to day, AVs need to be able to adapt quickly to changing conditions.

Our team is committed to building our autonomy system to be the best it can be. That includes picking challenging service areas and conditions to ensure that our AVs can handle any and all situations.

With goMARTI, our engineers were inspired to improve our systems to better understand and accommodate the risks of extreme cold. This not only allows us to keep the residents of Grand Rapids safe, but to overcome similar challenges in future deployments. As a result, we can support a wider range of underserved populations with safe, accessible and equitable autonomous transit.

Learn more by watching the BBC segment here.

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