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Minnesota prepares for driverless technology

Sunday night's fatal collision in Tempe, Ariz., in which a self-driven Uber car struck and killed a woman walking her bike, has focused new scrutiny on emerging automotive technologies.

Meanwhile, Minnesota is trying to imagine what the transportation landscape of the future could look like and how to navigate it. Toward that end, Gov. Mark Dayton appointed a 15-member advisory council earlier this month to offer recommendations about how best to regulate the use of autonomous vehicles.

Despite the recent tragedy in Tempe, increased automation that enables vehicles to operate with less human control may hold great promise, said Jay Hietpas, state traffic engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

"This was a very unfortunate event, but each year, there are almost 40,000 fatalities on our roadways caused by human drivers, and typically we have about 40 pedestrians killed each year in Minnesota by drivers, so there are challenges both on the automated side and of course the human behavior side," he said.

Hietpas said he and others in the transportation field are eager to learn more about the details of Sunday's incident to determine "what actually happened with the technology or with the human behavior involved." The Uber car in question had a driver behind the wheel, but the vehicle reportedly was operating in an automated mode when it ran into the woman and killed her.

Uber has since suspended its trials of all self-driving vehicles nationwide, but the ride-share company was not testing the technology in Minnesota.

Unlike Arizona and a handful of other states, Minnesota has not turned self-driving vehicles loose on the streets, Hietpas said.

"We're taking kind of a calculated approach to this," he said.

"We have a bunch of different challenges here in Minnesota, especially with snow and ice and with the weather conditions," Hietpas explained.

"As an advisory council, we're trying to look at everything holistically to say: What's the impact and opportunities of this technology in Minnesota? So that's more the approach," he said.

"We're trying to be proactive but yet making sure we're looking at everything comprehensively, versus just diving into letting these vehicles operate on our system. We want to make sure they are safe and that they can handle all our winter weather conditions, so our residents can have a comfort level," Hietpas said.

Although MnDOT did demonstrate an autonomous shuttle bus on Nicollet Mall during the Super Bowl, Hietpas said that was done under very controlled conditions, with the road blocked off to other traffic, and barricades put in place to keep pedestrians or bicyclists from straying into the way. He noted that MnDOT staff personally did demonstrate how the slow-moving bus responded to pedestrians and other obstacles.

Vehicle features such as adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, lane departure detection and automatic parallel parking are already showing up on the road.

"Those are kind of pieces of the puzzle that will eventually get us to a fully automated vehicle. But it's going to be awhile. The technology will progress in steps to get there," Hietpas said.

But the prospect of full automation is approaching.

"The industry is developing this technology at a pretty rapid pace, and we want to make sure that we are prepared in Minnesota from a technology standpoint and in terms of the infrastructure we will need to handle these vehicles," Hietpas said.

"Our laws have never contemplated an automated vehicle, so we need to make sure that our laws are clear what they can and can't do in the future," he said.

While Minnesota has taken a relatively cautious approach to self-driving vehicles, Hietpas expects the state to still be a player.

"We're not on the bleeding edge. But I think we're quickly emerging as a leader, mostly because we're concerned about how these vehicles will operate in a northern climate," he said.

MnDOT has offered the industry a test facility it calls MnRoad that simulates different streetscapes and highway environments in a controlled setting. So far, the facility has drawn some interest but little actual activity.

"I think they're still trying to work out how these vehicles can work in a warm-weather climate. So we're offering them the opportunity when they're ready to come and test these vehicles in winter weather conditions. We think Minnesota is potentially a spot where we can both learn what works and how we can make these systems more advanced," Hietpas said.

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