Minnesota ready to test use of autonomous buses in cold climate conditions

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) will be issuing a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking technology partners to help safely demonstrate how autonomous bus technology will work in a cold weather climate.

The agency says that currently there are many mid- to high-end personal vehicles for sale that include some level of connected and autonomous features, but there is little research being done with public transport vehicles. Minnesota is a mass transit state.

The population in the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area alone is expected to double by 2040, increasing the need for public transit in the state. MnDOT is keen to explore the safe use of an autonomous bus in cold weather climates, in order to position itself as a leader in this fast emerging technology area. By doing so, MnDOT will influence national policy and prepare Minnesota transportation owners and stakeholders for the future.

MnDOT hopes that its autonomous bus trials will start with warm and cold weather testing at the agency’s MnROAD test track facility near Albertville, which is used by researchers from around the world to test road building materials and designs. After successful testing at MnROAD, a live pilot could be conducted the week of the 2018 Super Bowl, which is being hosted in Minnesota. Additional on-road tests may also be conducted at various locations around the state. This will not be MnDOT’s first research on autonomous or connected vehicles, as the agency already has driver assist systems in its snowplows. The agency is currently researching other smart in-vehicle technologies, such as lane departure and advanced curve speed warning systems, roadway mapping for fog line detection, and intersection collision avoidance systems.

“There’s not been much research done in the northern climates,” explained Jay Hietpas, MnDOT state traffic engineer and director of the agency’s office of safety and technology. “Minnesota is the perfect state to test autonomous vehicles. We’re a mass transit state and we have cold and snowy weather. The low-speed 2.5-mile loop and high-speed 3.5-mile segment of MnROAD provide a safe and secure environment for testing autonomous vehicles in winter weather conditions.

“We know the autonomous technology is coming fast, so MnDOT wants to be prepared with both the technology and the regulatory standards. We want to shape how this plays out. The safety factor alone is a huge benefit. Our fatality numbers have plateaued the past few years, but autonomous buses could help reduce fatalities.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International magazine and the Traffic Technology Today website since he joined the company in May 2014. Prior to this he worked on some of the UK's leading consumer magazine titles including Men's Health and Glamour, beginning his career in journalism in 1997 after graduating with a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).

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