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Is Rochester ready for self-driving shuttles?

A pair of self-driving shuttles are slated to hit Rochester streets as early as this spring.

People line up to take a short guided trip in a shared autonomous vehicle in 2018 in Peace Plaza. Experts were on hand to answer questions about the driver-less, low-speed form of transit. (Post Bulletin file photo)

A pair of self-driving shuttles are slated to hit Rochester streets as early as this spring.

"It’s going to be approximately May of this year," said Ia Xiong, Rochester’s transit development manager.

The one-year pilot project, which will circle an 18-square-block section of downtown, is being implemented by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to test the emerging technology.

Working with EasyMile, First Transit and the city, the state project will involve two shuttles that could carry up to 12 people at a time with four dedicated stops along the route. It will operate daily from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

It will be the city’s responsibility to house the shuttles and address any infrastructure concerns, there is no city cost connected to the shuttles.


The shuttles, which were part of a 2018 demonstration in Peace Plaza, travel 10 mph to 12 mph and will have the ability to "communicate" with traffic signals.

While the shuttles will be guided by a global-positioning system, an onboard ambassador will man each shuttle.

"The ambassador is to help with any questions and, in an emergency, take over as needed," Xiong told the Rochester City Council on Monday.

Mayor Kim Norton questioned whether the proposed route is ideal, since two of the proposed streets are already expected to receive new bike lanes as part of the new City Loop project.

"I’m a little nervous that they are starting out on a bike route," she said, also citing concerns about delivery vehicles that frequently stop along the route.

Xiong said the route was chosen from many options.

As planned, the shuttles will run in a clockwise, 1.5-mile loop starting south along Broadway Avenue, heading west on Sixth Street Southwest, turning north on Third Avenue Southwest and finally heading east on Center Street to reconnect with Broadway.

The Third Avenue and Center Street legs of the route are part of the planned City Loop, which was slated for discussion during Monday night’s regular council meeting.


The $1.3 million contract for the first phase of the City Loop contract was pulled from the council agenda for more discussion Monday.

Still, City Engineer Dillon Dombrovski said the planned shuttle route could still work with the new bike lanes. If problems arise, he said the project comes with the ability to adjust the route.

Xiong said the route was selected knowing challenges will be faced, but she said that is part of testing the new technology.

"Most of the time, these projects are put where it’s pretty clean, and with his route, it’s going to be real life," she said.

Dombrovski said it means the city will need to update the vehicle’s programming when street conditions change due to construction projects or unexpected occurrences.

As the project moves forward, Xiong also acknowledged that EasyMile shuttles are facing challenges elsewhere.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration barred the autonomous shuttle shuttles from carrying passengers last week after a sudden stop was reported in Columbus, Ohio, and a passenger was reportedly thrown to the ground.

"It’s still under investigation, so we don’t know why it stopped," Xiong said, adding that it’s uncertain how long the passenger ban will be in place.


With potential concerns in mind, she said Easy Mile and First Transit are working to address safety and will likely require riders to be buckled into their seats before the shuttle moves.

As the city awaits the state pilot project, it is also working with a larger nationwide consortium to determine whether full-size automated buses are in the city’s future.

With the potential to run a route between the IBM and Rochester Community and Technical College campuses, the effort has brought 12 agencies together with the goal to make electric, driverless buses affordable through group purchasing.

Xiong said the City Council will likely face a decision on the potential for moving ahead with a purchase in the final months of the year.

If the council opts to move forward, the self-driving buses likely wouldn’t hit the streets until 2023.

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