Self-driving car, you’re about to meet Minnesota winter

By: - October 19, 2021 6:30 am

ROCHESTER — By the time the twee orange-painted vehicles officially made their debut in Rochester on a sunny morning in late September, Akec Garang had already ridden them twice.

Garang, who lives in downtown Rochester, was captivated by the vehicles and how they can handle varying traffic conditions. He stepped on about half an hour before they stopped running for the day, because he wanted to see them handle rush hour traffic.

The shuttles, which operate on a route called the Med City Mover, are the first to compete for road space with other people driving, trucking, biking and walking.

The slow-moving vehicles are battery-powered and about the size of an average SUV, seating up to six people. As part of a pilot project, they provide free rides between the People’s Food Co-op downtown with the Mayo Clinic campus about half a mile apart. The pilot, which will cost the state $1.5 million over the next year, will help transportation planners figure out how to move people around with autonomous vehicles as well as how to keep them going during the winter.

Autonomous vehicles have many potential benefits. They may eliminate the need to own a car, because autonomous vehicles can drive around 24/7, taking people to wherever they need to go. That means less demand for parking and more land for everything else. And if they’re proven to work in the Minnesota winter, they might prevent deadly crashes. They could also wear less on our roads because they follow the same route, to the inch.

Not everyone is excited about autonomous vehicles. Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, remains uneasy after hearing about crashes involving autonomous vehicles outside of Minnesota. He’s introduced legislation requiring systems that allow a vehicle to drive itself be disabled.

Chief among Abeler’s concerns is their ability to navigate on icy road conditions during a Minnesota winter. “​​The minute you take a driver out from behind the wheel, I mean just, you got to know, Minnesota weather being what it is, [winter] road conditions. I don’t know how on earth some GPS robot is going to react to an icy road slick,” Abeler said.

An autonomous shuttle operates on 6th St. SW in Rochester, Minn., holding up traffic behind it because of its slow speed. One of two shuttles are operating on a route called the Med City Mover, which connects a food co-op with the Mayo Clinic. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Indeed, the shuttle follows a predetermined path, slowing down or stopping only for obstacles placed along the way. The Rochester shuttle managed to slow down as it went by a road barrel in front of a construction site, which project managers say wasn’t there when they were mapping its route. The shuttle also managed to stop in front of this reporter who darted into traffic to photograph it.

Owing to the vehicles’ precision, planners may be able to redesign our roads to be cheaper, leaner, and greener. “​​The roads [may] look more like the tracks that you would find under a railway, for example, and you could plant the middle of the road the where the tires are not going,” said professor Tom Fisher, who directs the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota and recently finished a project that gauges its advantages.

Rochester is no stranger to autonomous vehicles, having been part of a consortium to create specifications for autonomous buses. Outside of Rochester, Ann Arbor-based May Mobility will operate a $3.5 million 18-month pilot with MnDOT and the city of Grand Rapids next summer to understand how autonomous vehicles can operate in rural areas, especially during the winter.

MnDOT is concerned Abeler’s legislation would stifle innovation, scaring companies working on automated vehicles.

“Not only would it impact our ability to work in this public private-partnership to deploy more fully automated vehicles in Minnesota, but it actually would affect current business going on in Minnesota,” said MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher at a recent press conference. “And that’s when we lose out on technological advances.”

Akec Garang looks out as he rides in an autonomous shuttle through downtown Rochester. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Abeler wants autonomous vehicles to be tested on Minnesota roads for three years without accidents. “I think the whole process needs to slow down and do some demonstrations. And show me no accidents.”

The state has committed to testing them — though not for three years — because of what information they could bring. “It’s important to remember these are pilot projects that will both help Minnesotans learn about and experience these emerging technologies and help MnDOT better understand how they work in real-world conditions,” said MnDOT spokesperson Jake Loesch.

Tammy Meehan Russell, a consultant who works with cities on emerging technologies, said pilots like the forthcoming one in Grand Rapids are important for allaying concerns like those Abeler raises.

“We know there’s a lot to learn,” said Russell, adding that it’s hard for autonomous vehicles to operate on rural roads, especially in the winter, because, like humans, they need to recognize landmarks more discernible from trees to understand where they are going.

The autonomous vehicle project in Grand Rapids will also complement service provided by Arrowhead Transit, Minnesota’s largest transit agency by area, serving much of the Iron Range and the North Shore. While Arrowhead Transit operates mostly during the day, the autonomous vehicles will target people with limited mobility who want to have a social life, such as to go to church and a show, in the evenings and weekends.

A big question remains: Who will be held responsible if the autonomous vehicle is involved in a collision and found to be at fault? A bill introduced in 2019 by three Republican senators recommended assigning the liability to the manufacturers.

Although the nation is contending with a transit driver shortage, drivers across the nation have raised concerns about losing their jobs when our way of getting around is fully automated. Industry experts stress the need to retrain those who will lose jobs so they can be productive in other aspects of the profession.

State Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, navigates a ramp as she disembarks from an autonomous shuttle. The shuttles are operating on a route called the Med City Mover. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Gov. Tim Walz in 2019 established by executive order the Council on Connected and Automated Vehicles, comprising experts representing trade groups, government agencies, labor and the disabled, who are helping the state prepare for connected and automated vehicles. The council is divided into five subgroups that strategize how safety, data, infrastructure, labor and education for autonomous vehicles will look.

Southwest Transit, which serves Eden Prairie and the eastern third of Carver County, received around $350,000 from MnDOT and the federal government to purchase Teslas to eventually test their autonomous operating capabilities.

Officials there don’t envision doing away with drivers, even once their system is fully automated. 

“We get a little uncomfortable at the notion of there being no human presence on our vehicles just from that person-to-person contact customer service aspect of things,” Matt Fyten said. “So it’s [not that] we don’t necessarily see a world without drivers in an autonomous world, we just see the role of the driver shifting.”

Back in Rochester, Garang looks forward to the day when he can ride autonomous vehicles to more places. It’s particularly important to him because he walks with a crutch and relies on paratransit, which he considers to be unreliable.

“I wish I could see this in the future, I don’t know when, in the near future or far future, to give a ride to people like [a] taxi. Take me to Walmart, for example, I need to go to Walmart,” said Garang.

Steven Frich, who manages the project for First Transit, the Cincinnati-based company which also operates transit and paratransit service in Rochester, Duluth and parts of the Twin Cities, tells Garang that it’s a possibility.

“Yeah, that’s the idea. To have more people, to have more stops, hopefully in the future, you know. But it depends on how the people want it.”

Garang, with the help of a ramp that deployed from the bottom of the shuttle, then disembarked at the Mayo Clinic, to make his way to the library.

MnDOT encourages people who plan to, have ridden, or are interested in the Med City Mover to take a survey.

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H. Jiahong Pan
H. Jiahong Pan

H. Jiahong Pan 潘嘉宏 (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is a Minneapolis-based introverted freelance journalist who reports primarily on their lifelong passion: transportation issues.