Self-driving electric vehicle donation boosts research opportunities at Western Michigan University

The recent donation of a self-driving electric vehicle will give Western Michigan University students a proven platform for hands-on education and research opportunities.

While the technology is autonomous, the donation of an Aurrigo Auto-Pod will put Western Michigan University in the driver's seat for groundbreaking research. 

Aurrigo International PLC, a global leader in transport technology, donated the four-seat vehicle to Western's Energy Efficient and Autonomous Vehicle (EEAV) Lab.

"We have been working with Aurrigo since the first Michigan Mobility Challenge in 2018 when two Auto-Pods were piloted on WMU's campus in collaboration with several other companies," says Zach Asher, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and EEAV Lab director. "With this donation, we are able to expand ongoing efforts at WMU in electric and autonomous vehicle research, education, and technology commercialization."

David Keene, CEO of Aurrigo International PLC, says: "Autonomous technology is expanding rapidly and if we are going to fulfill the potential of the industry, we need to build a pipeline of talent. This partnership with Western Michigan University is another example of business and academia coming together to explore new solutions, and we are delighted that this Auto-Pod will bring real-world technology to the fingertips of students."

The recent donation of a self-driving electric vehicle will give Western Michigan University students a proven platform for hands-on education and research opportunities.The new research opportunities will position Western students to be at the forefront of emerging technologies and set them up for success in the sustainable energy field.

"It will hopefully accelerate their journeys into the sector as well as embedding our brand and our technology in our way of thinking going forward," Keene says.

One WMU graduate is now an autonomous vehicle research engineer at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, Asher says.

Positioned for Success

The Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, housed within the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is one of only two such programs in the state, and the EEAV Lab works out of WMU's 5,000-square-foot Automotive Research Laboratory.

Under the direction of Asher, the laboratory has current partnerships with industry, government, national laboratories and other universities to develop and commercialize key technologies, including autonomous vehicle infrastructure, perception in adverse weather, resilience engineering and energy-efficient operational techniques.

Back in the fall of 2019 the lab was awarded a $2.1 million project, funded through the Michigan Mobility Challenge, to focus on a design that would improve transportation options for people with disabilities.

That autonomous shuttle was programmed to run in a loop from west of Sangren Hall directly south to the fountain near Sprau Tower. 

WMU students were also involved in the design of self-driving shuttles at Battle Creek VA Medical Center to help extend hours of service.

In 2021, researchers in the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences received a three-year, $2.5 million grant from the Department of Energy to accelerate research aimed at developing infrastructure-based technology to improve energy efficiency in autonomous vehicles. In this program Asher’s team investigated five types of infrastructure-based sensors to improve efficiency. They include technology that could be embedded in a roadway or other external source, sensors that could offload data through a wireless network and a system to draw information from existing infrastructure data.

Partnerships are key

With the limited talent pool in the autonomous and electric vehicle space -- collectively known as mobility -- and the rapid speed at which technology changes, partnerships such as this enable a faster incorporation of key skills in student education and training. WMU has existing interdisciplinary courses for undergraduate and graduate students in electric vehicle and autonomous vehicle engineering to prepare graduates to enter the mobility workforce.

"Western’s commitment to advancing transportation sustainability and safety is demonstrated by our continued research and development in mobility, electric vehicles, and autonomous vehicles, and the faculty's efforts to enhance curricular offerings," says Dr. Steve Butt, Dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. "Our goal is to be a leader in research, education, and commercialization of these advances."

"We believe that public and private partnerships like this will drive wide-scale adoption of autonomous technology," adds Tenille Houston, Vice President of Strategy and Operations for Aurrigo North America. "Enabling students to get hands-on experience with our tried and tested platform will deliver a stronger starting point from which to build and grow."

To learn more:

Research papers


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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.