Minnesota transportation department wants robot buses in the streets next year

The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus has a driver, but his job is to just sit back and supervise the computers that do all the work.

The Mercedes-Benz Future Bus has a driver, but his job is to just sit back and supervise the computers that do all the work. Mercedes-Benz

Fully autonomous, driverless buses have hit the streets in France, Germany, and Australia. In Switzerland they shuttle college students around campus. In Japan they ferry the elderly. In China they weave expertly through city traffic.

San Francisco, with its myriad of tech companies, is leading the United States in developing and testing driverless cars. But early this month, Minnesota leapt into the race to phase humans out of public transportation.

Jay Hietpas, MnDoT’s director of safety and technology, says the transportation department wants to get to a place where no one ever dies in a bus-related accident due to human error.

Where human drivers can be distracted, intoxicated, or tired, autonomous buses are designed to scan their surroundings to create a 3-D map, which computers then navigate with the single goal of getting passengers from point A to B in one piece.

“So we’ve been kind of studying, monitoring, tracking autonomous vehicles for quite a long time, and what we’re learning is they’re doing some testing in maybe some southern environments,” Hietpas says. “And we wanna make sure these vehicles are able to work within our infrastructure and under our weather conditions.”

MnDoT just started researching other driverless bus prototypes this February. Hietpas found that most models still employ human drivers as safety precautions, and that although the technology is progressing very rapidly, it’ll be a good while before fully autonomous vehicles rule the world’s roads.

Google’s self-driving cars have logged millions of miles successfully, but they’ve still reported about a dozen minor accidents. Recently, one of Uber’s driverless Volvos was spotted running a red light in San Francisco because it failed to recognize traffic signals, reported the New York Times.

With all that in mind, Hietpas hopes to begin testing Minnesota’s very own version sometime next year.

“The lessons we gain through this bus project can be applied to cars, trucks, and other motorized vehicles,” he says. “We hope we can reduce fatalities across all of these modes.”