Twin Cities attorney Nadeem Schwen purchased a Tesla two years ago.

He uses his car's partially automated self-driving function almost every day. Though there are certain maneuvers — like when he backs out of his driveway or there's a tricky turn ahead — where he'll take back the steering control.

Within Schwen's circle of friends, more are buying electric vehicles with self-driving features, a trend mirrored across Minnesota and the country. When asked how many registered cars in Minnesota have self-driving functions, the Department of Public Safety did not have an answer. But all signs point to an increase in people buying electric cars with driver-assistance functions.

As of January, there were 34,473 electric vehicles — a combination of battery-powered and plug-in electric hybrid cars — registered in Minnesota. The majority of those cars are Tesla models, according to the state's Department of Vehicle Services.

In April 2019, there were only 11,163 registered electric vehicles in the state.

"There are a few different manufacturers, besides Tesla [and] including Mercedes that I know have come out with more advanced self-driving technology," Schwen said. "And I know more people who are buying Teslas with it, as well as people who are buying other makes that have that kind of functionality."

Pilot programs

Private citizens aren't the only ones investing in autonomous vehicles. The state is also trying to figure out how to bring more self-driving cars to the roads to forge a more connected community.

Last September in Grand Rapids, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) launched a self-driving car system called goMARTI — Minnesota's Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative — to give free, on-demand rides to residents who book through a smartphone app or call center. The Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation recently received a $9.3 million federal grant to expand the system — which currently has a fleet of five vehicles, including three with wheelchair ramps — beyond the 16.5-square-mile area with 70 pick-up/drop-off locations.

In 2021, MnDOT piloted a self-driving, six-person electric shuttle in downtown Rochester, called the Med City Mover, that went in a 15-block loop and operated for a year. The shuttle's sensors at first caused the vehicle to slow or stop entirely when it mistook snowflakes, leaves or high winds as collision hazards.

A similar pilot shuttle program launched in White Bear Lake, completing earlier this month.

"We know that winter weather is a major challenge. And that's why we're encouraging partners to test here in Minnesota," said Tara Olds, deputy director of MnDOT's Connected and Automated Vehicles office. "We want technology that's going to work in Arizona to work here in Minnesota for our people all year-round so that we can have sustainable options."

Legislation has passed in Nevada, California and Arizona to allow different types of autonomous testing. There is currently no legislation in Minnesota regarding autonomous vehicle operation.

In the interim, elements of infrastructure that can help with autonomous vehicles include easier to read signs and clear lane markings, as snowplowing and de-icing chemicals can cause the paint to fade or chip. Lane-keeping assists depend on solid lane divisions.

MnDOT is researching how to install equipment that can help with lane-keeping in blizzard conditions, Olds said, and the state's intelligent transportation system includes a multitude of cameras that allow digital messaging on boards about possible crashes, work zones or distances to the next exit.

Cars that are connected to the internet can use that information for navigation and to communicate with other connected cars.

"We're trying to better understand the landscape nationally, but also what we want to see here in our state, ensuring that we're able to encourage innovation testing here, encourage innovation to develop here, but at the same time, make sure that we're protecting the people that are on the roads and doing it in a safe way," Olds said.

Accelerating industry

Autonomous functions in cars use sensors, algorithms and cameras to create and maintain a map of the vehicle's surroundings. Those systems help vehicles turn on lane-keeping assistance, brake automatically, perceive obstacles and engage adaptive cruise control.

Car makers like Tesla, Waymo and Mercedes-Benz are coming close to manufacturing cars that are able to drive themselves, if they aren't already capable.

Earlier this year, Mercedes-Benz announced its new drive pilot model will be the first with SAE, or Society of Automotive Engineers, Level 3 driving status in the U.S., meaning the person in the driver's seat will not be driving when automated features are engaged.

According to the manufacturer, the drive pilot model can self-drive up to the speed of 40 mph. The first cars of the drive pilot model will be available to customers in the second half of 2023.

Waymo — the autonomous driving technology company that Alphabet owns — and Uber announced a partnership this year to have Waymo's autonomous vehicles make Uber Eats food deliveries and drive people around for Uber ride-hailing trips. It's starting in Phoenix later this year.

"Sensors are getting better and cheaper, and computers are getting faster and cheaper. All these different things that an automated vehicle needs to sort of do its thing, and all these different industries have sort of aligned in an interesting way," said Brian Davis, a research fellow in the University of Minnesota's mobility technology lab. "The result has been a lot of improvements over the last few years."

As a developer of internet-connected technology software systems, Hopkins-based Digi International has provided connectivity products for vehicles and intelligent traffic management systems through the years, said Harald Remmert, chief technology officer of the company's cellular solutions division.

New York City's transportation department has Digi software deployed in more than 14,000 intersections for traffic management, Remmert said. Digi's technology allows cars to communicate with traffic lights and cameras to determine when other vehicles or pedestrians are coming near, he said.

The company's technology is also in buses and trains to help with vehicle location, maintenance and passenger WiFi. It's also powering an autonomous shuttle on a 500-acre technology park called Curiosity Lab in Georgia.

While he declined to disclose the brand name, Remmert said a major automaker is using Digi products to gather data during field tests.

At the University of Minnesota, researchers are investigating how connected and autonomous cars can operate in the snow, how existing infrastructure supports those vehicles and how to protect connected vehicles from cyberattacks, Davis said.

One researcher at the U uses a vehicle simulator to test how human drivers interact with automated cars, Davis said.

"All of this has progressed tremendously over the last five years, and when you look forward to the next five years, better machine learning capabilities, better sensors and camera lenses, all of that will continue to improve," Remmert said.

A safer solution

Schwen supports the growth of autonomous vehicles. He thinks self-driving cars, if effective, could lead to safer roads by decreasing erratic human factors.

Davis, who has spent the past decade researching intelligent transportation vehicles, agreed.

"As these systems get more safe, that's going to reduce traffic deaths, reduce traffic injuries and kinds of other crash events," he said.

There were 63,751 traffic crashes in Minnesota in 2021, a 12% increase compared with 2020, with 488 of them fatal. That was the most in a calendar year in the state since 2007, according to the state's Department of Public Safety. Speeding was a contributing factor in 171 of those fatalities, drunken driving in 74 and distractions in 27.

Nationwide, there were 130 crashes involving vehicles with automated driving systems between July 2021 and May 15, 2022, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. None of those crashes took place in Minnesota, and one resulted in serious injuries. Almost half the crashes were part of testing procedures.

Autonomous cars could also help increase mobility for those who are unable, or uninterested, in driving, Davis said. Eventually, people could be able to sit inside a car and simply tell the vehicle where they want to go, he added.

The automation could grow to a point where cities might need special lanes for self-driving cars and legislatures to decide whether people with fully autonomous cars need a driver's license, Remmert said.

Schwen, though, still has concerns. He's not sure how different models of self-driving cars will react to each other. There's also the human element, with maybe some drivers not obeying or following manufacturer's instructions of how to operate a car with self-driving functions.

While he recommends people interested in full self-driving cars to buy one, as long as they're careful.

"The technology is in an impressive place," he said. "But I would definitely caution people to understand that it is not perfect."