Automated driverless vehicles soon will cruise select Minnesota roadways for the first time, moving passengers and mingling with other traffic in Rochester and potentially White Bear Lake.
The Med City Mover is expected to start looping through downtown Rochester late this summer or in early fall with stops at Mayo Clinic and the People's Food Co-op, part of a growing list of sites across the country, including Yellowstone National Park, that are testing driverless technology.
White Bear Lake leaders and partners say they are pursuing a similar driverless shuttle route.
In Rochester, the brightly colored purple and orange electric shuttles will top out at 15 miles per hour. The vehicles are tall and square and about the size of an economy car. A paid attendant will ride in the shuttle and will be able to take control of the vehicle in case of an emergency.
"This will be the first time in Minnesota we are operating one of these shuttles in a live multimodal urban environment with live traffic," said Tara Olds, deputy director of Minnesota Department of Transportation's Connected and Automated Vehicle Office. "It helps people to have a better understanding of what the future of transportation could look like."
Med City Mover — a collaboration between a handful of partners including MnDOT, the city of Rochester and First Transit — will operate for a year free to the public. The goal is to gather data and give people, including other motorists, an opportunity to interact with driverless vehicles. It also is a chance to test the vehicles in a cold climate, Olds said.
"These really haven't been in weather conditions like we see in Minnesota," Olds said.
A driverless shuttle did run along a portion of Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis during Super Bowl 2018, but that street was closed to other traffic.
"It's exciting to be on the front end of this," Rochester Mayor Kim Norton said. "A lot of people are somewhat apprehensive about the concept."
Norton said she is prepared for the driverless technology to elicit strong reactions from residents, both supportive and skeptical.
"People will be watching how this works. I am told this vehicle is quite aware of its surroundings and it will be able to stop," Norton said.
Driverless vehicles have been met with pockets of deep skepticism across the country, and some industry advocates are trying to win over the public with small, pilot programs that promote people using the technology.
In 2017, global research company J.D. Power found that consumer trust in automated vehicles declined toward "definitely would not trust" across all generations compared to the same study a year earlier, according to a University of Michigan report. But the University of Michigan's Mcity transportation program, which was testing its own driverless shuttles at its Ann Arbor campus, found that consumers who used the shuttles were overwhelmingly supportive of the technology.
The idea of driverless vehicles has captured the imagination of the public, scientists and Hollywood for decades. In 2009, a driverless vehicle delivered a pizza across the Golden Gate Bridge, said researcher Frank Douma with the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. High-end automaker Tesla's work with autopilot technology also has garnered national attention.
Douma, part of the White Bear Lake project, said these test runs in Minnesota are more egalitarian. "How can we improve the transportation system for people who can't drive?" Douma said.
White Bear Lake and its partners including the University of Minnesota and the nonprofit Newtrax are still finalizing their plans, but city leaders there say they are now eyeing a 1.5-mile route that would help seniors, students and folks with disabilities travel in the city with a stop at the White Bear Lake branch of the YMCA of the North.
White Bear Lake has held community meetings about the proposed shuttle. Earlier this month, the City Council agreed to lower speeds limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour along a portion of the proposed shuttle route.
White Bear Lake City Manager Ellen Hiniker said pending contracts means she and partner agencies can't discuss specifics, but said city leaders are excited about the goal to help groups who have traditionally lacked mobility.
"Let's make sure we can showcase and demonstrate how this technology can help and have an impact on those who have difficulty with transportation," Hiniker said.
MnDOT officials said they could not comment on the White Bear Lake project, but shared more details about Rochester's Med City Mover.
The first thing riders will notice when boarding the shuttle: There's no steering wheel or pedals for acceleration or braking, Olds said.
The vehicle has seats and seat belts for six. Wheelchairs can be secured in the middle of the vehicle.
The vehicles are now being programmed for their 1.3-mile route. They have multiple cameras and sensors and also can respond to unforeseen obstacles.
"Safety is at the forefront of everyone's mind," Olds said. "It has the ability to immediately stop just like if someone slams on the brakes or if someone runs out in front of them."
The vehicle attendant, outfitted with a controller, also has the ability to override automation in an emergency.
Olds said the driverless vehicles are proving safe in other cities. Riders can scan a QR code and fill out surveys about their experiences.
Olds said driverless technology could be used to address inequities in the transportation system.
The project, including leasing vehicles, costs about $1.5 million. This project isn't meant to replace existing mass transit but rather expose people to this emerging technology, Olds said.
Before launching Med City Mover, MnDOT conducted a statewide survey to gauge attitudes and the public's understanding of driverless technology. "A lot of folks said they want to learn more and have more experience with the technology," Olds said.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037