Even in Cold Weather, Minnesota Has Warm Welcome for Self-Driving Buses

By: Bridget Clerkin June 28, 2017
Minnesota transportation officials are looking to autonomous buses to boost the state's public transportation capacity with the Minneapolis (pictured)-Saint Paul area expected to double in population by 2040.
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Residents of the North Star State are hoping a new project there will prove that Minnesota is no fair-weather friend of driverless technology.

The state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) recently approved a plan to bring self-driving buses to its roads. The venture could benefit Minnesotans on several fronts, involving their state in the competitive field of autonomous vehicle development and even offering a chance to show off that technological prowess when the Super Bowl comes to town in 2018, the agency said.

But before the vehicles can gain a foothold in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, they’ll have to prove they can hold their footing.

In a place colloquially referred to as “Minnesnowta,” the buses will have to prove their mettle in harsh wintertime conditions, the DOT said.

In fact, that’s all part of the plan.

The agency intends to test the buses along a 6-mile planned course, both at low and high speeds and under the supervision of human drivers, throughout next winter. The standards for the automation itself are also lofty, with the state aiming to run buses using Level 4 autonomy—technology that is capable of simultaneously driving the vehicle and monitoring its surroundings.

The project may mark the first time such ambitious machinery is tested in inclement conditions. A majority of self-driving cars are currently running in much friendlier climates, such as those found in California and Arizona.

“There’s not been much research done in the northern climates,” Minnesota DOT official Jay Hietpas told Metro Magazine. “Minnesota is the perfect state to test autonomous vehicles. We’re a mass-transit state and we have cold and snowy weather.”

And a growing populace. Another reason for the pilot program is the expected doubling of population in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area by 2040, according to the DOT’s outline.

With the self-driving bus project, the state is hoping to get ahead of that curve—and hoping there’s not black ice on it.

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