Self-driving cars will eventually hit the pavement in Minnesota, and state officials want our roads and laws to be ready.
Gov. Mark Dayton formed a group Wednesday to delve into the tricky policy and infrastructure questions that will accompany the arrival of autonomous vehicles. The 15-member advisory council will take up traffic regulations, privacy concerns and many other matters, with policy recommendations due to the DFL governor by December.
The creation of the council elevates what has been growing chatter among local academics, planners and others about self-driving cars. At a Wednesday news conference, Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle noted that vehicles with autonomous features, such as automatic parallel parking, are already on the road. Other cars on the market now feature automatic freeway steering and braking.
"The era of automated and connected vehicles isn't way off in the future," he said. "It's actually happening right now."
The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has recently been testing an autonomous shuttle, which it showed off during the Super Bowl last month. Zelle said officials have learned a lot about the technology, such as how self-driving vehicles maneuver roads when lanes are covered in snow.
"How do you develop compensating ways to ensure that we have a vehicle following the road?" Zelle asked.
Dayton also directed MnDOT and the Department of Public Safety to prepare for testing autonomous and connected vehicles, the latter of which refers to vehicles that communicate with each other. Zelle said he expects there will be testing of transit or individual vehicles on private roads or limited public roadways.
"We certainly want to be one of those states where pilot programs and testing [are] happening," Zelle said. "We think we offer something unique: the cold weather."
The advisory council will have representatives from various backgrounds, including higher education, freight and transit. Its members have not been named, and people who are interested can apply online. The council will be co-chaired by Zelle and Christopher Clark, Xcel Energy's president for Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Minnesota Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman said autonomous cars could reduce congestion and make roads safer.
"It's exciting to consider a vehicle doing the thinking behind the wheel, especially as … the focus on the road is challenged by more driver distractions," Dohman said.
She added that the state will need to study how law enforcement interacts with autonomous cars and their occupants. "It might mean a change in technology for law enforcement across our state and ... across the country," Dohman said.
Autonomous vehicle legislation has been approved in 21 states, in some cases defining the technology and regulating how it may be used, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In six other states, governors have issued executive orders akin to Dayton's.