The SAE Tomorrow Today podcast recently covered an interesting story out of Grand Rapids, Minnesota — the debut of the first rural transit program using wheelchair accessible autonomous driving vehicles.

As vehicles with autonomous driving capability gain wider adoption, it is important to ensure that these platforms are wheelchair accessible. The future of transportation, including accessible transportation, is autonomous — it’s critical to make this technology accessible from the start, so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Autonomous van with wheelchair ramp deployed from rear of vehicle.

Over the next 18 months, the goMARTI pilot program will allow residents and visitors to secure free, on-demand rides through a partnership between May Mobility and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). The 18-month program is community-driven and covers nearly 17 square miles in the Grand Rapids region with 70 pick-up and drop-off points.

What makes the goMARTI program unique is its fleet — As the commercial launch partner of the Toyota Sienna Autono-MaaS (S-AM) developed by May Mobility, the program operates 5 fully autonomous vehicles including 3 outfitted with a BraunAbility conversion for wheelchair access.

SAE Tomorrow Today interviewed Kathy Winter, the Chief Operations Officer of May Mobility and Thomas Johnson-Kaiser, the CAV-X Engagement and Project Manager at MnDOT, to discuss the pilot program and the benefits it offers to members of the local community. You can listen to the full podcast or read the episode transcript on the SAE website.

During the interview, Winter noted that some 25% of rides have been reserved by wheelchair users — in a small town of about 10,000 residents, that serves as tremendous evidence of the need for accessible transportation options not only in large urban centers, but in rural locations as well. Where affordable accessible transportation services exist, community engagement from people with disabilities increases!

To learn more, visit the goMARTI website. In the comments below, be sure to let us know if you’ve given the service a try!

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