Minnesota small towns envision a driverless future

Chrysler minivan being tested at Waymo's facility in Atwater, Calif.
Autonomous vehicles are not the stuff of science fiction any longer. So far, most of the talk on how to deploy them has focused on big cities. But rural Minnesotans -- especially those who don't drive -- also stand to gain a lot from the technology.
Julia Wang | Waymo via AP

When most transportation wonks predict how self-driving vehicles will be used in the not-too-distant future, it sounds a lot like how people currently get a ride through Uber or Lyft — just without the driver.

"I need a car, I need a ride, I dial it up on my smart phone," University of Minnesota transportation researcher Frank Douma told a group of community leaders in Grand Rapids, Minn., recently.

"It shows up at my front door, takes me where I need to go, I get out, and somebody else is waiting there immediately or shortly thereafter to get into it and go somewhere else."

But that model is designed primarily for cities or suburbs where lots of people live relatively closely together. And that could leave a lot of people who could really benefit from driverless vehicles out in the cold, said Douma, who directs the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

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"People who can't drive, whether they have different physical abilities, or they are too poor, or they're getting older and they can no longer drive, could all benefit from self-driving technologies," he said. "But if you don't have the market model that works in cities, you don't get those benefits."

So, last year Douma organized a task force to explore how to make self-driving vehicles accessible to all Minnesotans, which he and others predict will be cruising Minnesota roads by 2025 or 2030. Former teacher Myrna Peterson was one of his first recruits.

Peterson, 68, is paraplegic. She was paralyzed in a car accident more than 20 years ago. Now she often uses her electric wheelchair to make the two-mile commute to Grand Rapids.

"Twenty-three surgeries later, I'm not dead yet," she said. "I am on a mission to make things more accessible for those people who don't have a voice or are incapable of speaking for themselves."

Earlier this month, she used her one thumb that still works (but she has a mouth that won't quit, she emphasized), to clear a keypad on her electric wheelchair, as she prepared to make the two-mile commute into Grand Rapids for a discussion on driverless vehicles with Douma and other community leaders.

Myrna Peterson commutes to a community discussion on self-driving vehicles.
Myrna Peterson commutes to a community discussion on self-driving vehicles in Grand Rapids, Minn. on Nov. 13.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

She bundled up under a scarf. An attendant outfitted her in a bright yellow jacket. She rolled out the door, and up the slippery driveway, where she had to wait for giant logging trucks to pass before scooting across the highway.

Peterson loves the independence of driving herself into town, she said. But she's tired of getting caught in rain and snowstorms. "I need a heater and a hood," she said, laughing.

Rural transit systems are often limited. Hers doesn't run on weekends or after 8 p.m. That's why Peterson is so excited about the potential for autonomous vehicles.

"It just seems like it would be such a freeing thing," she said.

Douma believes self-driving vehicles could be a game-changer for Minnesota's 41 rural transit systems. The technology would free them up from having to recruit and pay drivers, he said, which is one of their largest expenses.

Minnesota's 41 rural transit systems combined receive more than $90 million in state and federal grants, said Michael Johnson, program supervisor with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Transit.

They also promise big safety advances in places where car accidents are more common. And they could offer more mobility to senior citizens, who make up a larger percentage of the population in rural areas.

Still, a number of obstacles remain. The technology is still developing. And the policy and legal framework to deal with questions like liability and insurance still needs to be established.

But advocates say driverless vehicles could be transformative for rural economies, where getting people to work is a big barrier.

Drawing from the Minnesota Autonomous Bus Project
Drawing from the Minnesota Autonomous Bus Project, which has a goal of researching vehicle and infrastructure requirements to safely operate an autonomous bus in cold weather climate conditions.

"In addition to opening up a whole new world for the elderly and the disabled, I see driverless vehicles as holding real potential for igniting a new spark in rural communities," said state Rep. Sandy Layman, R-Cohasset.

"I think it's a tremendous growth opportunity for us," said Itasca County Sheriff Vic Williams. "It allows the accessibility for people limited in their mobility to be able to have some freedoms that we take for granted."

Autonomous vehicles will be getting a big publicity boost in Minnesota this winter. MnDOT plans to operate a self-driving shuttle bus on Nicollet Mall in downtown Minneapolis during the week of the Super Bowl.

State workers have already begun testing how the vehicle performs in winter driving conditions. If it does well, the next step could be to pilot the bus somewhere else in Minnesota.