Driverless Buses Aren't Coming to Minnesota – They're Here.

December 12, 2017 05:42 PM

Driverless buses may seem farfetched or futuristic or even unbelievable, but in fact, they're already here.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is currently in the middle of an autonomous shuttle bus pilot project at their MnROAD research center in Monticello.


RELATED: MnDOT to Partner with French Company to Test Driverless Shuttle Bus

"We know the technology is coming really fast, but a lot of the testing is happening in the warm weather climates," MnDOT State Traffic Engineer Jay Hietpas explained Tuesday. "So we decided let's bring a vehicle here to Minnesota and see how it operates in our winter weather conditions."

The bus is fully electric. It averages speeds of between 10 and 15 miles per hour. It fits about a dozen people, and it detects obstacles and navigates using a combination of what's called LiDAR – which is kind of like radar except it uses light – and GPS.

"Autonomous vehicles, connected vehicles, they are coming and they are coming faster than anybody had expected," said MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle, who added that the technology has plenty of potential benefits. Those include reduced congestion and increased fuel efficiency, but the big one as far as Zelle is concerned is safety.

"Who knew we'd have backup cameras and signals that say when you've got a car next to you, automatic breaking? You know, this is just taking it to the next level," he said, while pointing out that more than 300 Minnesotans are killed in crashes every year, a number he believes autonomous vehicles can drastically reduce.

There are still some kinks to work out.

During a test run on a circle track in Monticello Tuesday, the vehicle made a few unplanned starts and stops. Joseph Holmes – a representative of EasyMile, the company that supplies the driverless software – said snowfall was likely to blame.

"We've seen the snow definitely present some challenges," he said, "but that is exactly why we're here, and that is why it's so exciting to be a part of this project."

RELATED: What's Holding Back Self-Driving Cars? Human Drivers

MnDOT and their partners have some time to work with the weather. The pilot project, which a MnDOT spokesperson said costs about $200,000, is scheduled to run for about four months.

Interested riders won't have to wait long to take a spin on a driverless bus. MnDOT says they plan to offer the public short test drives in downtown Minneapolis during Super Bowl week.

You can find additional information about the project here.

What do you think? Are you on board with driverless buses, or would you prefer that all buses have a human behind the wheel? You can send an email or video clip to the Commissioner of Transportation, Charlie Zelle.



Josh Rosenthal

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