The Minnesota Department of Transportation has seen the future, and it looks like a super sized picnic cooler with windows and wheels.
The agency unveiled its 12-passenger Easymile test bus Tuesday, trundling around a 2.5 mile test track in Monticello at a little over 3 miles per hour. It's the center of a four-month, $200,000 test of autonomous vehicles that will also feature a very limited, block-long test in downtown Minneapolis the week before the Super Bowl in February.
"It's incredible when we think of the opportunities and the disruptive changes that are coming to our transportation systems," said transportation commissioner Charlie Zelle. "We know the future is coming, whether MnDOT would like to be involved in it or not, and we have a great opportunity to help shape not only what will happen and how it is deployed in Minnesota, but how we can shape and contribute to national policy."
The test program has the state leasing an Easy Mile driverless EZ10 shuttle bus, a four-wheel van with no steering wheel or pedals.
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"It's a fully driverless, fully electric vehicle. It has four LiDARs (light radars) that sit above each wheel, and above this are Velodyne pucks which are sensing everything around the vehicle," said Joseph Holmes, with Denver-based Easymile. It has cameras looking out each end. "And sitting on top of the vehicle you've got the GPS and another LiDAR system, and all of those systems work together in a hybrid form to actually continuously sense its environment all the way around itself and go on a pre-programmed route." It has bench seats for eight and can hold more people standing.
Holmes said there are 60 of the vehicles in 19 countries. They're not highway vehicles. They go about 10 to 15 miles per hour and are a "last mile" alternative. For example, they're in use outside AT&T Stadium in Dallas, where the Cowboys play, to shuttle fans around the parking lot. The shuttle will have an operator on board for all the testing in Minnesota and has a tennis-ball sized emergency stop button inside and outside.
MnDOT is leasing one this winter to literally test the worst-case scenario: the ice and snow and salt that have been vexing human drivers on Minnesota roads for decades.
"The winter conditions are extremely important to the advancement of this technology," said MnDOT project manager Mike Kronzer. "We want to see how the vehicle reacts to different obstacles, how it reacts to other vehicles, pedestrians and bicycles, how it reacts at intersections. We're going to run through this list of different scenarios ... and then we want to take those same scenarios and we want to run them through different winter conditions ... with snow on the ground, snow in the air, ice on the roadway, and as all of you know we get quite a bit of that salt spray that makes our cars filthy, and we want to see how that spray effects the sensors on the vehicle."
The 3M corporation is also joining the test to see if its optical or sensor technology can help the shuttle better battle winter.
Tuesday was the second day of the test, and had some halting results. The onboard cameras were struggling to tell the difference between falling snow and real obstacles ahead of the shuttle, stopping the bus regularly and requiring an operator to get the bus going again from inside with a joystick remote.
"It sees the snow, and the vehicle is determining, is that a hazard, or is this just snow. And that's obviously the most exciting part about working on this project," said Holmes, with Easymile. "It's that fine balancing between real world conditions and software to ascertain, 'Vehicle, don't worry. It's just snow.'"
He notes that Easymile vehicles have already driven more than 100,000 miles around the world and haven't hit anyone.