Radhika Damle: Driverless shuttles are moving technology forward – Rochester Post Bulletin

Picture this: You walk out of your house and step into a self-driving shuttle that transports you to your destination. You know it’s going to be a great day as the skies are clear, unpolluted and blue.
In our current world with rising levels of greenhouse emissions and an almost irreversible climate change, this image is hard for us to overlap in our modern world. But after I recently rode into the future, this picture feels more realistic.
As someone who has tinkered with robotic vehicles, I was always intrigued by the driverless shuttles that have been going around downtown Rochester since the late summer of 2021. The shuttles are fittingly called Med City Movers. The orange, and purple toasters-on-wheels are electric, automatic vehicles on a looped route with two stops: the People’s Food Co-op, and the Gonda Building. I was driven to take a test drive.
As you step inside, you are greeted by an operator who can switch to a manual control for safety reasons and is also happy to answer questions riders have about the technology (and act as a tour guide). While the Mover looks compact from the outside, the inside is spacious. The Mover can seat six people and can also accommodate wheelchairs. With a charming “ding-ding” the Mover begins its route and enters the traffic of the road seamlessly.
The Movers are part of a research and development project to observe how driverless vehicles react to different types of weather and also how they handle an urban/suburban traffic environment (especially during Minnesota construction season). Most of the other driverless shuttles across the nation are currently being tested in controlled environments such as college campuses or airports, so the Rochester project is really unique! As the only driverless shuttles in the state of Minnesota, these Movers are moving attention to Rochester as patients, visitors, and Rochesterites are riding the shuttle to get a first-hand experience of the revolutionary driverless technology. The shuttles run approximately 13-15 rides per weekday and 17-20 rides on weekends.
Through these rides, the Mover is gaining experiences and learning opportunities. Since its time in Rochester, the Mover has had numerous detailed sensors added and refined, a longer lasting battery placed, and many other upgrades. The city has also made infrastructure changes to support the shuttles.
I always wondered how the Mover could follow the changes in the signal lights. You might notice some antennas on top of the stoplights downtown which send a signal to the Mover that tells it what color the light is.The Mover can subsequently adjust its speed to safely clear the intersection. Witnessing this communication between various devices in real time was fascinating.
Additionally, I was able to see just how advanced, sensitive, safe, and useful the driverless technology has become. This service will be especially useful in Rochester where it can be used to transport patients to the hospital, or in a variety of settings such as schools or nursing homes! Furthermore, the electric shuttle will also help humanity reduce greenhouse emissions.
To catch a glimpse of this potential future, I strongly recommend riding the Mover and filling out the anonymous, quick and easy, pre and post ride survey. The information for the timings and survey can be found on the website http://www.dot.state.mn.us/medcitymover/ .
The data you give from the surveys about your experience on the route will help improve driverless technology across the world. So are we in the future yet? We are reaching it, moving safely at 15 mph, one toaster-on-wheels at a time.
Radhika Damle is a senior at John Marshall High School. Send comments on teen columns to Jeff Pieters. Email jpieters@postbulletin.com.


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