A group of Minnesotans from government, tech and academia peered into the future of our roadways Friday at a self-driving car symposium — of sorts.
Featuring rides in semi-autonomous vehicles and presentations about the technology, the event came amid a growing conversation in Minnesota about the challenges and opportunities of self-driving cars. It was hosted by VSI Labs, a St. Louis Park-based consulting firm that researches and tests self-driving technology.
“We haven’t done a whole lot of talking on this” at the Legislature, said Rep. Sandra Masin, DFL-Eagan, one of several House Transportation Policy Committee members at the event. “So we need to be doing a whole lot more research and asking a lot more questions.”
VSI recently finished installing self-driving technology in a Kia Soul, allowing for some hands-free use. Attendees including legislators, tech company representatives, engineers and others took rides around the area in the Soul and a Tesla Model S, which boasts an “Autopilot” feature that can steer and brake in highway conditions.
Those features, which are gradually entering the market, are known as “Level 2” autonomy. A recent University of Minnesota report estimated that fully autonomous, “Level 4” cars could hit the market by 2025.
“Incremental automation is happening now in a big way,” VSI founder Phil Magney said during a presentation.
Fresh from a ride in one of the cars, Rep. Cal Bahr, R-East Bethel, said he has been talking with engineers, VSI and others about what is needed from the Legislature. He said the state most likely needs to clarify who is liable in the event of a crash.
Though autonomous cars are expected to disrupt the long-haul trucking industry, Bahr, a truck driver, believes the jobs will be replaced by new ones. “That’s part of capitalism. It’s creative destruction,” Bahr said. “Some new stuff will come along. I’m fine.”
Magney said government officials are eagerly trying to glimpse at where the technology is headed.
“Because this affects everything,” Magney said. “This affects their decisions on all the infrastructure, all the highways, mass transit.”
Rep. Jon Koznick, R-Lakeville, said he hopes autonomous vehicles can help reduce congestion. He’d also like to see them bridge the “last mile” between transit stops and riders’ destinations.
“Maybe with better technology we can more efficiently and cost-effectively get people to that last mile so that transit is a little bit more usable,” Koznick said.
Minnesota has one particularly daunting hurdle with regard to self-driving cars: snow. Magney said 3M and other companies are developing road marking material that can be seen in more conditions.
“There’s no way you’re going to be able to cope with a Minnesota blizzard,” Magney added. “It’s just not happening.”
He later clarified: “For a while, at least.”
University of Minnesota researcher Frank Douma, who studies self-driving cars, was more bullish on solving the wintry problem.
“Half the country gets snow,” he said. “There’s not going to be a market for these vehicles if they don’t figure it out.”