With a cheery chime, a small, squarish minibus eased forward and tentatively took to the "highway" Tuesday morning, advancing to a top speed of 3 miles per hour in the frigid morning air punctuated by a dash of swirling snow.
The road was actually part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation's MnROAD cold-weather pavement testing facility, a self-contained area in Monticello not open to normal traffic.
And the bus -- more like a moving pod, really -- is part of MnDOT's Autonomous Bus Project, a pilot program for pilotless vehicles that will help determine how they operate in cold weather.
The clime in Monticello did not disappoint, as MnDOT hosted a phalanx of media to show off the project. The public will get a peek during Super Bowl LII festivities, when the buses debut on Nicollet Mall.
"I can't think of a better day in Minnesota to show off and test this autonomous technology," declared MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle. "We have just the right amount of snowflakes, a little ice on the road. As we think about the future, autonomous vehicles are being tested and have gained great attention throughout the world and certainly in the United States. We have a unique opportunity to test this vehicle in compromised conditions," Zelle said. "This is not California."
The technology is being tested throughout the country, from Uber's driverless taxis in Pittsburgh to autonomous minivans operated by Waymo (Google's driverless car company) in Phoenix. State highway departments such as MnDOT will provide the infrastructure as well as the policy and regulatory know-how to help welcome them.
For the most part, these tests tend to take place in milder climates. And, while many mid- to high-end vehicles include some autonomous features, little research has been done involving transit buses, according to MnDOT. As Zelle noted, MnDOT's autonomous bus test will have broader reach -- "not just Teslas for the very few."
From a transportation standpoint, experts say we live in a potentially transformative time -- with driverless technology affecting road safety, congestion, land-use decisions, mobility for seniors and the disabled, and the consumption of fossil fuel.
It's hard to know when driverless vehicles will go mainstream, but the University of Minnesota's Frank Douma says it will be sooner than most people think. "One thing I've learned about this technology is that if you put a date on it, it will happen earlier," Douma said.
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