MSU plans 22-seat autonomous electric bus for campus trips

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

One of the country's largest autonomous electric buses will buzz around Michigan State University's campus next year, symbolizing the university's push to build a reputation in modern transportation research.

The 22-seat bus will run a 2.5-mile route from the MSU Auditorium to the MSU Commuter Lot at the intersection of Farm Lane and Mt. Hope. The bus will complement research underway at MSU Mobility, the university's autonomous infrastructure research and development arm.

Michigan State University mascot Sparty points to the university's autonomous electric bus, a 22-seat vehicle that is expected to make trips along a 2.5-mile campus route early next year after on-campus testing and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration validation.

"This will offer our students a firsthand look at the future of mobility and give us the tremendous opportunity to analyze real world autonomous driving data, supporting a host of [research and development] initiatives on campus," said Satish Udpa, an engineering professor and interim director of MSU Mobility.

The bus will communicate with traffic lights along its route. While it can operate without any human interaction, a driver "will be present and onboard at all times, prepared to take control if needed," according to a university press release. MSU will deploy the bus after it is tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Students, faculty and staff will be able to ride the bus when it starts its route early next year.

The bus had an imperfect test run in early November when another bus got too close and triggered its emergency brakes. The abrupt stop sent some media members "tumbling up the aisle," the Lansing State Journal reported.

MSU is partnering with bus manufacturer Karsan, transportation company ADASTEC and the state of Michigan on the autonomous bus project.

"Having an electric autonomous bus of this scale in our backyard is incredible. 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," Michigan Chief Mobility Officer Trevor Pawl said. "MSU's connected campus is an asset to proving out autonomous technology and helping us realize the full potential of this type of public transportation."