ROCHESTER - Some say it looks like a toaster on wheels.
A driverless, electric-powered shuttle called the Med City Mover made its formal debut Thursday in Rochester, cheerfully toddling about a 1.5-mile loop in the southern Minnesota city.
"It's so cute. I think I want one," said Mike Wentzel of Spicer, Minn., who was visiting Rochester on Thursday.
Beyond being a nearly huggable curiosity, the shuttle represents a $1.5 million effort by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) to assess how automated vehicles might operate on Minnesota streets and in our storied climate.
While MnDOT has dabbled with this kind of automated technology since at least 2017, most of the department's driverless vehicles have been observed in controlled settings, such as spins on Nicollet Mall during the Super Bowl.
The Med City Mover will navigate under real-life traffic conditions — potholes, distracted drivers, jaywalkers and all — for the next year in hopes of gathering input from passengers to help inform future transportation decisions throughout the state.
The free service isn't entirely driverless. State law requires an attendant to be on board to take over operations if conditions warrant.
"You get a lot of oohs and aahs, and people getting out their phones" to take pictures, said operator Taylor Stevens of First Transit, the firm running the two vehicles in Rochester.
The Mover will operate seven days a week (excepting holidays) with stops at the People's Food Co-op and the Mayo Clinic's Gonda Building. Each shuttle has six seats.
Passengers must wear masks to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus, and they also must buckle up. The manufacturer, EasyMile of Toulouse, France, added safety belts after a Columbus, Ohio, woman fell from her seat last year when the automated vehicle stopped suddenly.
After the incident, federal safety officials suspended use of EasyMile vehicles in the United States for four months. The company says it now operates its shuttles in 300 locations in more than 30 countries, including Salt Lake City and Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
On Thursday, the podlike yellow, purple and orange Med City Mover shuttle eased through intersections by announcing itself with a clang worthy of a San Francisco streetcar. Otherwise the electric-fueled ride was startlingly quiet, even as it reached its top speed of 15 mph.
Passengers are being encouraged to take a survey before and after their rides, using either a QR code found on the shuttle or by logging onto the project's website.
"We want to make sure we have the ability to introduce people to connected and automated vehicles so that they can help us understand how we create a transportation system in Minnesota that meets our needs in the future," said Tara Olds, deputy director of MnDOT's Connected and Automated Vehicles Office.
After all, as MnDOT Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher noted Thursday, many motorists already drive vehicles with automated features, "so this is not such a huge leap for us to be doing this work now."
Rochester seemed like a good fit for the pilot program because of Mayo Clinic, which draws millions of visitors every year, and the presence of Destination Medical Center, a public and private economic development initiative grounded in technology and innovation efforts.
"We are a community known for innovation and for collaboration," said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton.
Some state lawmakers in recent years have moved to bar automated vehicles in Minnesota until they're proven safe. The effort has been led by Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who said Thursday he's not convinced automated vehicles are safe.
"The dangers are concerning and very real," he said. "Who will say 'sorry' when someone comes to harm?"
But Anderson Kelliher said that whenever there's been a mode change in transportation, such as the introduction of the combustion engine, there has been "a lot of fear about what might happen. The Med City Mover helps people understand what the technology looks like and what it feels like to be in one of these vehicles."
Anderson Kelliher added she fears that any move to bar automated vehicles could result in companies working in that space to leave the state. "Then we lose out on technological advances," she said.
Janet Moore • 612-673-7752