Shared transit presents unprecedented risks as communities and businesses around the state reopen and people come out of isolation following a months-long shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, companies and partnerships in West Michigan are at the forefront of innovation when it comes to protecting future riders and drivers of public and shared rides, according to Erin McCurry, product manager for accessibility at May Mobility Inc.
The company, which is based in Ann Arbor, launched an autonomous “micro-transit” shuttle fleet in Grand Rapids last year. The project is a partnership between May Mobility, the city of Grand Rapids and a number of private companies along the fixed route between downtown and the city’s west side. The company also has similar fleets in Detroit, Columbus, Ohio and Providence, R.I.
By early this year, the system was averaging more than 500 riders per day who were mostly commuters and college students, according to the company.
“Ridership in Grand Rapids was our highest,” McCurry told MiBiz. “We’ve gotten a lot of people to try public transportation for the first time.”
But the bottom dropped out of the pilot program earlier this year when the deadly coronavirus spread to Michigan and service was suspended by the company in March.
New concerns surrounding the safety of shared transportation came to the forefront. People who ride shared or public transportation are uniquely vulnerable to the highly contagious coronavirus, which is spread mainly between people who are in close contact with one another and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Mid April was when we really decided that we need to make a product that can address these concerns so that we can get back on the road as soon as possible,” McCurry said.
The company is now building a prototype shuttle that will be partitioned into three separate sections. The vehicles, which were originally designed with six seats, will now hold two riders and an attendant each in a divided area. Continuously running HVAC filters will circulate the air and the shuttles will be disinfected with hydrogen peroxide fogging units obtained through a partnership with Faurecia Automotive Seating in Grand Rapids and a UV-C lighting unit manufactured by Grand Haven-based GHSP.
Speed to market
GHSP, a division of JSJ Corp., is one of three companies with a reach into West Michigan to recently receive grant funding from the state’s PlanetM initiative. The resources are intended to jumpstart solutions to mobility challenges and public health concerns presented by the spread of the coronavirus.
“We are dedicating a lot of our work right now around how we can help combat the virus when it comes to transportation,” Charlie Tyson, technology activation manager at PlanetM, told MiBiz.
The Michigan Economic Development Corp. initiative pivoted resources from planned technology grant programs to focus on programs that could be used to prevent further outbreaks of the virus, according to Tyson.
“The big thing here was that we knew that we had to get these solutions into the market as soon as we could,” he said.
PlanetM expedited the grant timelines to help companies quickly deploy their technologies to address challenges facing the market in the wake of the continued COVID-19 crisis.
“In the mobility market, which is always changing, we noticed that helping companies deploy their technology in real-world settings not only validates the technology further but then they’re also going to get feedback from the community that they’re deploying in. At the end of the day, that helps them establish new partnerships, potentially raise more funding if they’re a startup, and it really helps accelerate the adoption of the technology,” Tyson said.
Ultraviolet light is one technology that can be used to disinfect and kill germs, including pathogens such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. GHSP uses technology licensed from Grand Haven-based UV Partners Inc. that it developed for its UV Angel devices used in health care settings to disinfect equipment. The company received $80,000 from PlanetM to expand the UV products into shared and public transportation settings.
“They’re putting tools into the vehicle to combat the virus and hopefully change the negative perceptions on transportation that we think arose from COVID-19,” Tyson said. “We’re also very excited about the fact that GHSP technology could not only go into emerging mobility options like May Mobility but also traditional transportation vehicles like police vehicles and ambulances.”
May Mobility plans to have a prototype of the remodeled shuttle ready to demo by mid June, however, that timeline is vulnerable to supply chain disruptions or other unforeseen circumstances, according to McCurry.
“If we can move quickly and prove that this technology is safe and get it out into the world, we’d obviously like to do that as soon as possible,” she said. “This is the fastest that we can go while making sure that it’s safe and thoroughly testing everything.”
Enthusiasm for the project is spreading through May Mobility, McCurry added.
“People who are immunocompromised still need transit and I think that everyone really jumped at the chance to work on this,” she said. “It goes back to our roots as a startup and it’s great to be able to work really quickly on a product that will really impact people’s lives.”