Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

A driverless Twin Ports? Local planners consider future of transportation

Within 12 years of the introduction of the Model T Ford in 1908, the horse and buggy had become obsolete in urban centers. By 1939, the automobile was king and influencing life and culture throughout the nation.

On Wednesday, roughly three dozen local transportation planners met at the Minnesota Department of Transportation office in Duluth to consider a modern-day comparison: What will the advent of driverless and smart vehicles bring to the Northland?

"This is the start," MnDOT policy planning director Katie Caskey told a roomful of mostly public sector planners from around the Twin Ports. "We want to think with you about what this kind of transportation could mean to the state of Minnesota."

The ensuing three-hour seminar was spent mostly in smaller groups, conducting scenario planning — a critical tool for planners as they attempt to wrap their heads around a transportation future rife with unknowns.

"It's going to get messy," predicted Mike Wenholz, senior planner with the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council. "What do we even plan for?"

Planners and policy makers are already playing catch-up with regard to the coming transportation revolution. Currently, commercial and technology sectors are driving the movement toward what MnDOT refers to as "connected and automated vehicles," or CAVs.

Companies like Google, Uber and Tesla are pressing full-throttle into the future with vehicles laced with sensors which can mimic human senses. Freight companies are experimenting with autonomous vehicles that move in near bumper-to-bumper convoys, dubbed "platoons."

"The technology is not waiting for planners or projects," Caskey said, advancing a notion she'd uttered earlier: "It's happening outside of government and coming to government to react to."

But MnDOT is loathe to trail too far behind. Do that, and technology billed as safer would risk being introduced in a destabilized Wild West-type of environment.

In Minnesota, some regional experimentation with the technology is already happening. Snow-plow trucks on Minnesota Highway 55 west of the Minneapolis are communicating with traffic signals so that the lights turn green to allow the plow continuous motion.

Another example was raised of an experimental driverless shuttle bus in the Twin Cities. The bus once notably stopped for blowing snow. A simple reprogramming addressed the glitch, but the example showed how the technology becomes more fraught with variables in a cold-weather climate.

The shuttle also drove so predictably true over the course of a few months that it began to create ruts in the pavement. It served to make the point that today's planners don't even know what road surfaces will look like in a driverless future.

"It could be blocks of plastic or glass with wires running inside the road," said Daniel Rust, assistant professor of transportation and logistics at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

MnDOT is taking its CAV seminar to locations throughout the state in the coming months. It's compiling data on what planners would choose to prioritize and what they think could be less important going forward. If the Duluth visit was an indication, the considerations are endless:

• On convincing citizens to surrender the control associated with driving, the point was made that insurance companies will likely drive the conversation by using safety data associated with driverless vehicles to price consumers out of getting behind the wheel;

• Greater connectivity increases risks of cyber security issues;

• One planner was heading to Madison after the seminar, and she said in an autonomous scenario those five hours of "windshield time" would become productive work hours;

• A tenet of a driverless future is that it would make mobility more accessible to more people. But would it be divided by class — with first-class down to steerage — or develop in more equitable ways?

• If vehicles communicate with infrastructure and each other, will there even be a need for traffic signals? Does the recent spate of roundabout additions in the Northland even need to continue, given that as a solution for reducing crashes connectivity looms as a better one than the installation of more roundabouts?

For decades, the planning matrix in transportation has been straightforward: set a 50-year vision and plan projects 10 years out that will last 50-100 years.

The example of the Blatnik Bridge came up. Opened in 1961, the bridge connecting Duluth and Superior is near the end of its useful life, and already on the local MnDOT 10-year plan to be replaced as soon as 2028.

But in this dynamic, some say "disruptive," new scenario, planners wondered: Is a quarter-billion dollar replacement necessary and what would it look like?

"Are we even going to use it the same?" said Chris Belden, director of planning and grants for the Duluth Transit Authority. "We're not going to know."

Some prevailing themes emerged among the planners, who seemed to collectively embrace the challenges: they'll need to be more nimble, by likely adopting shorter-term solutions to present problems, and use regional experimentation to find out the best ways forward.

For some, where the future is going might not need so many roads.

"We're thinking ground-based," Rust said, "but it just as easily could be rail — or up in the air."