At first blush, the tiny driverless shuttle that debuted Friday in White Bear Lake seemed like a compelling oddity. People pointed at it, took selfies with it, and clambered aboard with great enthusiasm.
But to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the new Bear Tracks self-driving electric minibus is a kind of rolling research project intended to show how innovative technologies will change and perhaps improve the state's transportation system.
"This is an exciting day for transportation in Minnesota," MnDOT Commissioner Nancy Daubenberger said at Friday's launch event in White Bear Lake.
Noting that the state's first automated shuttle pilot project began in Rochester a year ago, Daubenberger said the White Bear Lake version will "build on what we're learning and will help prepare the state for the future of transportation. This project is a great example of providing a safe transportation choice, particularly for those with mobility issues."
Bear Tracks, which formally begins service Monday, will serve a 1.5-mile route largely along residential streets in the east metro city. There are four stops: the White Bear Area YMCA, the Willow Wood assisted living apartments, The Boulders senior-living complex, and PAI Inc., a day program for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The free, 11-person shuttle, which will operate from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, will have an attendant aboard to make sure it is operating safety. The vehicle's top speed is under 15 mph.
The Rochester pilot program, called the Med City Mover, has operated along a tight loop in downtown traffic. Cory Johnson, program lead in MnDOT's Office of Connected and Automated Vehicles, said information still is being collected from that project to determine what lessons were learned.
About 2,500 riders took the Rochester shuttle, and many of them filled out surveys describing their experience. "People really responded to it," Johnson said. "Some loved it, some didn't."
Such pilot projects help transportation officials understand how automated vehicle technologies may affect MnDOT's work — from interaction with traffic signals to how Minnesota's harsh winters may affect operations.
"We see a lot of technology coming at us all the time and it's changing the way we drive. These are things [MnDOT] needs to know," Johnson said.
MnDOT will launch its third automated shuttle in Grand Rapids this fall. The Bear Tracks project, which will last a year, is costing MnDOT $900,000.
The White Bear Lake route also will help determine how passengers with mobility issues use the shuttle, since three of the stops serve seniors or individuals with developmental disabilities.
"That was definitely part of the focus, to see how we can improve mobility and access. This has always been at the forefront of White Bear Lake's interest in the project," said Frank Douma, a researcher at the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies.
MnDOT partnered with 10 public and private institutions to launch the Bear Tracks shuttle. Newtrax, which provides transportation services for adults with disabilities in the northeast metro area, will operate the shuttle and provide logistics support.
Newtrax Executive Director Mike Greenbaum said his nonprofit is always looking for new ways to meet the transportation needs of seniors and people with disabilities. The Bear Tracks project is a "unique opportunity to be involved in helping develop groundbreaking technology," he said.
Plus, it's fun to ride, according to White Bear Lake Mayor Dan Louismet.
"It was pretty cool," he said. "It operated cautiously. It felt safe."