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Minnesota Closes Out One AV Shuttle Project, Opens Two More

The autonomous transportation projects being lead by the Minnesota Department of Transportation are testing not the technology, but the use cases these new forms of mobility can serve.

Shutterstock/Golden Sikorka
As Minnesota concludes one autonomous shuttle pilot project, two others continue to explore how the technology can expand transportation options.

The Med City Mover concluded its yearlong project in Rochester at the end of August, transporting some 3,000 passengers along its roughly 1.5-mile route in downtown, serving the Mayo Clinic.

“It’s too soon to have definitive data and summaries of ridership experience. We can say the early responses were primarily favorable,” said Cory Johnson, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) Med City Mover project manager.

The state is set to begin two new self-driving shuttle projects in White Bear Lake and Grand Rapids. The 1.5-mile demonstration project in White Bear Lake, a community just north of St. Paul, includes a number of partners like the YMCA; the city; the University of Minnesota; NewTrax, the shuttle operator; and others. The project’s route is specifically designed to serve populations who may not have many transportation options. These can be people such as elderly, those with disabilities or low income.

The vehicles used for this project, known as Bear Tracks, are the sort of small, electric autonomous shuttles used in the Med City Mover project, which can accommodate up to 10 passengers and will serve a fixed route.

The project in Grand Rapids, known as goMARTI (Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative), will run for 18 months, and include an area across 17 square miles with some 70 pickup and drop-off locations. MARTI will be unique from other AV shuttle projects in the state due to its on-demand nature. Riders will access the system via an app.

The MARTI project will include five Toyota Sienna Auto-MaaS (mobility-as-a-service) vehicles. Three of these will be ADA accommodating. The project will employ some 20 workers, and include 13 partnerships, which include the city of Grand Rapids, Itasca County, MnDOT, May Mobility and others.

In all of these AV projects, a key goal is to explore the idea of opening up more transportation options for those residents, visitors or others who may not have access to transportation.

“Like any pilot project, the goal is to learn. We look forward to learning much from the three projects once they conclude and we can analyze all data and responses to surveys," said Johnson.

“We learned that many Minnesotans appreciated having another option and access to future transportation technologies and tests,” he added.

Other transportation leaders have also viewed AV shuttles — a quickly emerging technology trying to find its place within the mobility ecosystem — with a cautionary eye, saying these should make the transportation pie bigger, not just give some riders a larger slice of pie.

When asked about autonomous vehicles, and their use cases, at the CoMotion MIAMI conference in April, Karina Ricks, the associate administrator for research, demonstration and innovation at the Federal Transit Administration, said the use cases for AVs are around how to give more choices to people without many — such as elderly, riders with special needs or low income.

“Transit is the preferred choice. But transit isn’t always there at the moment that you want it,” said Ricks, who formerly led the Pittsburgh Department of Mobility and Infrastructure (DOMI).

The role of the public sector is to ask, “How do we fill that market gap?” she added.

“Not just how do we continue to facilitate this industry, just adding more to where there’s a rich and robust market,” said Ricks. “But how do we, by offering up the city as a testbed … How do we then, also ask something of the industry? ...”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.