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Rural transportation goes autonomous

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Gettin’ around just got a little easier for people in Grand Rapids. Earlier this month, the first-ever, cold-weather, accessible autonomous vehicle took to the streets. It marks a milestone in how technology and innovation can help rural Minnesota communities meet today’s toughest challenges.

The 17 square-mile route offers more than 70 stops around the City of Grand Rapids, cost-free for any interested rider. A fleet of Toyota Sienna autonomous vans circle the route on a schedule created from community input and can be contacted for a pickup/drop off via the May Mobility mobile app or by calling 211.

Years in the making, this project was propelled by mobility champions in the Grand Rapids area. Since 2015, Mobility Mania has advocated for better access and opportunities for people with mobility challenges. Starting in 2015 as an event to break a Guinness Book of World Record for number of people rolling in wheelchair at once, 351 individuals quickly snowballed to a network of committed, passionate community members who are inspiring action for equitable access to transportation, building, sidewalks and more in Itasca County. Autonomous transportation is just one solution they’ve worked on, but an important one. What’s learned from this pilot project could have significant impact ripples across rural communities.

New transportation solutions for non-drivers will be a welcome support to help ensure access to essential goods and services as rural communities age. Things like getting people to work, to community centers (like the library) and to healthcare appointments can happen through these predictable, free autonomous vans. It will be exciting to see how this mode of transportation offers new opportunities for those who were previously denied access!

Blandin Foundation supported this project with three grants totaling $550,000. Read more about this project at

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