Undeterred by an autonomous shuttle fender bender in Las Vegas last month, Minnesota is moving forward on its plans to pilot an autonomous bus shuttle.
On Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) began operating a shuttle at its pavement testing facility near Monticello. The pilot is expected to last until March 2018, and comes quickly after a crash of a similar shuttle tested for use by the public in Las Vegas on Nov. 8 when a truck backed up into the vehicle. An MnDOT spokesperson told StateScoop that this pilot, the company’s first in cold weather, will not involve the public.
Minnesota’s shuttle, designed by Easymile — a company that specializes in autonomous vehicles, will test its ability to navigate Minnesota’s icy roads and inclement weather, according to MnDOT’s website. The facility is not open to traffic to avoid accidents, and in addition to cold weather, the busses will also try to traverse over salt covered roads with uneven terrain.
MnDOT said a shuttle was chosen as the test vehicle because public transit is expected to see high demand in the coming years. The Minneapolis–Saint Paul area, the densest part of the state, has a population of roughly 3.5 million and MnDOT said it expects the population to double by 2040, which will require a more robust transit network. The state says it hopes autonomous vehicles will improve safety, reduce congestion, and reduce pollution since the vehicles are electric.
MnDOT says it is trying to involve the public as much as possible for feedback and input. In January and February, the state is offering free rides at the Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis for this purpose. On its pilot website, the department says that it is also working with state agency partners to roll out the shuttle in other locations.