FutureStructure

Rochester, Minn., Considers Driverless Shuttle Program, Pilot Program Starts in California

The program, which seeks to ease traffic troubles, is reportedly the first of its kind in North America.

by Andrew Setterholm, Post-Bulletin / December 20, 2016
Image via the Post Bulletin

(TNS) -- The city of Rochester knows it has transportation challenges coming with Destination Medical Center and anticipated downtown job growth; a new technology, autonomous vehicles, could be a part of the solution.

One of the companies on the forefront of autonomous vehicles already has a foothold in Rochester. First Transit Inc., the parent company of the Rochester Public Transit Operator, is piloting an autonomous passenger shuttle at an office park near San Francisco.

According to a Rochester Public Transit news release, the autonomous vehicle passenger shuttle pilot program is the first of its kind in North America.

In partnership with EasyMile, a driverless vehicle company, First Transit is exploring an autonomous vehicle passenger shuttle that would connect riders to multiple Bay-area transit options by running a fixed route in the office park.

The pilot will begin with two vehicles, and each vehicle will be staffed with a customer service agent for questions and information, a press release said. The vehicles can carry 12 passengers each and run for 14 hours on a battery charge.

Autonomous vehicles are well suited to address "first mile, last mile" service, said Richard Freese, Rochester Public Works director and city engineer. It could help connect people from their homes or park and ride locations to buses that would take them to end destinations.

"New technologies such as autonomous shuttles, which compliment a strong fixed route system, can make it more convenient to use transit and will help us attract new riders," Freese wrote in an email to the Post Bulletin. "Attracting new riders is essential for achieving our goals in terms of the transit share of commuter trips into the central business district."

Transit currently accounts for about 10 percent of commuter trips to downtown Rochester, Freese said. To accommodate job growth anticipated with the DMC initiative, the transit share of downtown commuter trips needs to increase to about 30 percent.

The city of Rochester is in the process of conducting four integrated transit studies that will refine the concepts in the DMC Development Plan. The public's first chance to give input and comments on the studies is Jan. 24 at an open house hosted by the Public Works Department.

The department in October hosted a transit technology workshop where concepts for new and emerging transit technologies were explored for their potential applications in Rochester.

Autonomous vehicles were a part of that discussion, said Nick Lemmer, Rochester Public Transit marketing and outreach coordinator. Lemmer was excited when First Transit Inc. announced its pilot program.

"This was one of those items from the technology workshop that seemed a little bit beyond the horizon in terms of being in operation. So I was most excited to see one of those items actually being piloted, and coincidentally, being piloted by the same operator that we have here at RPT," Lemmer said.

While the autonomous vehicle technology has a Rochester connection, Lemmer said it was far too soon for the city to commit to any one mode for future transit technologies. Lemmer would like to see other technologies piloted — in Rochester, if possible.

"We are encouraging all kinds of transportation companies and providers to include the city of Rochester in potential future pilot programs, like the one you're seeing in San Francisco," Lemmer said. "We happen to think Rochester, with its potential growth, might be the perfect test case for some evolving technologies in transit."

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