(TNS) — MANKATO, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Transportation spent Tuesday at the road research center in Monticello testing out an autonomous vehicle, but it could be several years before we see any road changes or self-driving buses cruising in Mankato, said Sue Roe, of the MnDOT communications office.
“There is a lot of work with autonomous vehicles being done around the world, but not a lot being done in cold weather places,” said Jay Hietpas, MnDOT state traffic engineer. Minnesota has many more types of weather conditions than Google's headquarters in the Silicon Valley or tests being conducted in Austin, Texas.
The vehicle MnDOT has commissioned for tests seats six people, with room for six more standing and is produced by France-based-company, Easy Mile. It resembles a lunch box on wheels and is designed to take riders short distances at low speeds from 10 to 20 mph for the last bit of their transit, like from a parking lot to a venue.
MnDOT did not purchase the bus but will be testing it on Minnesota’s weather-worn roads from now until next spring, Hietpas said. The information that MnDOT collects from the tests will help shape future decisions in engineering, infrastructure design and transportation policies in Minnesota.
When MnDOT tested the boxy-looking vehicle, its sensors picked up on falling snow and would stop every now and again as if it were in front of an object or person, Hietpas said. The minibus has no steering wheel, brakes or accelerator pedals, so an operator had to press a button to get it going again.
But testing it in snow let the vehicle’s engineers adjust its programming so it could better adapt to the changing weather without stopping repeatedly. The next step will be to test it with people in Minneapolis on a closed-off stretch of Nicollet Mall in January.
The vehicles are currently used in Arlington, Texas, as a shuttle from the parking lot to AT&T Stadium, Hietpas said.
Even though MnDOT hasn’t purchased the vehicle, testing the self-driving shuttle can help the state plan for a future where there are more autonomous cars on the road. They will continue testing the autonomous vehicle until April and may go out into other areas of the state, but it won't be coming to the Mankato area, said Anne Wolff, MnDOT public affairs coordinator.
“Right now this vehicle runs on the same track, unlike a car with a human driver that weaves a little inside the lane on the road,” Hietpas said. “What will that do to our roads long term? What changes to street signs and road markings would the state need? What will we need for policies and regulations?”
Getting roads up to snuff to handle great numbers of autonomous vehicles would not be easy, said Stephen Druschel, a professor of civil engineering at Minnesota State University.
There would need to be greater consistency on road surfaces and edges for autonomous vehicles to navigate the state's infrastructure, Druschel said. It would take a lot of work — and a lot of engineers.
At MSU there are currently 191 students enrolled in the civil engineering program, said Daniel Benson, MSU director of media relations.
"The problem is that we're not stocking enough engineers now," Druschel said. "We have crying need from our employers and we're barely able to keep up with infrastructure needs now, let alone those required to prepare the roads for more autonomous vehicles."
©2017 The Free Press (Mankato, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.