Driverless shuttle breaks transportation barriers for some area residents.
White Bear Lake residents have a new way to get around town. In August 2022, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) launched the self-driving shuttle research and demonstration project, Bear Tracks. As one of three demonstration projects in the state, the vehicle aims to bring greater access and mobility to the community by providing low-speed public transportation to the White Bear Lake area.
The driverless shuttle connects the community YMCA with senior and affordable housing and a day program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Its 1.5-mile route, free to the public and operational weekdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., brings up to 10 passengers down Linden and Willow Avenues and Orchard Lane.
Though one may not think much of a vehicle that travels a maximum of 15 miles per hour, this rainbow-colored shuttle has big potential. The shuttle offers a solution for individuals previously left without a way to get around town. The stops at affordable housing and care facilities allow residents to get out of the house or visit the YMCA. “The project partners are excited for the potential of connected and automated vehicle technology to provide seniors and adults with developmental, physical or intellectual disabilities with greater mobility and independence and to reduce isolation,” says Tracy Shimek, the housing and economic development coordinator for the City of White Bear Lake.
The yearlong program will also generate crucial data and research opportunities for local institutions through August. The Minnesota Center for Transportation Excellence is doing workforce development with the shuttle, and the University of Minnesota has partnered with MnDOT to research community perspectives and expectations. They also hosted high schoolers in grades 10–12 for field training about technology and future job opportunities.
Safety is paramount in the shuttle’s operation. Along with an ADA-compliant ramp and fold-down seats for wheelchair accessibility, the shuttle isn’t fully driverless. “An operator is always present to ensure your safety,” Shimek says. “If necessary, the operator can manually take over.”
The shuttle is outfitted with sensors that allow it to “see” where it is and the surrounding environment. “While in operation, the shuttle drives on a predetermined path,” says John Balon, managing director of the shuttle’s manufacturer, Navya Inc. “In combination with the sensors, the shuttle can see and predict surrounding movement, including pedestrians, other road users and even leaves or tree branches blowing in the wind.”
Shimek sees Bear Tracks as the natural progression of transportation planning in the Metro. “As automated vehicle technology advances, transportation planners are taking a proactive approach to anticipate what infrastructure is needed to make the most of these developments,” Shimek says. “Whether or not all vehicles will be fully automated someday remains to be seen, but it’s like when the Model T was introduced—not everyone stopped using horses right away. A transition time was required.”
Looking to the near future, Shimek believes these small-scale pilot programs can help develop microtransit systems that could lead to larger-scale transit options. Interested members of the public can board the shuttle at the YMCA, near the west end of the parking lot.