Minnesota’s Free Driverless Shuttles Are No Longer Afraid Of Winter

The experimental program’s success is partly down to calibrating the package with the harsh weather in mind.

Rochester, Minnesota is the second largest city by population named Rochester. It is also the third largest city in the state, and home to the Mayo Clinic, a major nonprofit academic medical center. It’s also where the Minnesota Department of Transportation decided to test its self-driving shuttles.

The pair of Med City Movers are in fact six-person electric vehicles following a programmed route, scheduled for one year to help improve the technology. They provide low-speed free rides for the public around the Mayo Clinic downtown campus, residential areas, businesses, hotels and more along a 15-block loop in downtown Rochester. While these are driverless vehicles, they are accompanied by an attendant–just to make sure everybody feels secure onboard.

While summers are long, warm and rather humid in Rochester, winters are properly snowy and windy, which isn’t kind to the sensors of autonomous drive systems. That’s why Rochester is a perfect place to test. If this technology is going to be used broadly it needs to reach a point where it can cope with a lot more than yet another sunny day in California.

As The Star Tribune reports, the Med City Mover only attracts around 10 passengers a day. That’s perhaps because throughout the winter, the shuttles’ mistook snowflakes and steamy exhaust fumes for objects, slowing down or stopping entirely to avoid any trouble.

As explained to the Star Tribune by Tara Olds, deputy director of MnDOT’s Connected and Automated Vehicles Office, the Department of Transportation asked the Med City Movers’ French manufacturer EasyMile to upgrade the software, so that this $1.5 million pilot project could end on a high note this September, complete with an accident-free history.

Following Rochester, the MnDOT will partner with the transportation company Newtrax Inc. to launch a driverless shuttle in White Bear Lake. What’s for sure is that President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allows for plenty of self-driving research in the coming years, all set to combat climate change by improving urban efficiency using zero-emission vehicles.

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