Local autonomous vehicles drive change

Someone has to be the first.

In 1922, a Paris tailor named Franz Reichelt jumped off the Eifel Tower with a homemade parachute suit. He died, of course, but this was part of a process. 

A century later, adventurers scream through canyons in sleek wing suits while recording YouTube videos from their helmets. Better material. Better design. Different outcome. 

Just not for Monsieur Reichelt.

Early adoption of new technology remains a tricky enterprise. Everyone wants flying cars and teleportation, they just don’t want to plummet from the sky or have their atoms rearranged into the shape of el chupacabra.

I think that’s why many remain hesitant to accept self-driving cars, despite their growing presence on our roads.

According to the July 2023 edition of Consumer Reports, 68 percent of Americans are concerned about fully self-driving cars. Most folks like the idea of napping or replying to e-mail while the car brings them to work. They just don’t want to die in a fiery wreck because a can of yellow paint spilled on the road.

But we no longer have to imagine how autonomous vehicles might operate in northern Minnesota. Almost a full year of experimentation has been underway, including an entire winter.

Last fall, Minnesota’s Autonomous Rural Transportation Initiative (goMARTI) launched a fleet of five self-driving minivans in Grand Rapids for an 18-month experimental trial. The free, on-demand service connects residents to 70 destinations within a 17-mile area.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation and local partners, including the City of Grand Rapids, Blandin Foundation, Itasca County and Iron Range Resources agency, funded the initial 18 months of operations, which runs on vehicles from May Mobility and software by Via.  A recent $9.3 million federal grant award to the Iron Range Resources agency will be funding the expansion and extension of the goMARTI project.

Because this is an experiment, the vehicles aren’t fully autonomous. Human operators remain in the vehicles at all times to monitor the equipment and assist riders. This is a precaution until enough data is collected to reassure the public that the safety systems work properly. Nevertheless, the vans still drive themselves.

The organization kept rides free to get the best sense of how the routing system would work under higher usage. Unfortunately, it can’t stay free forever, but it’s a nice treat for residents of the Grand Rapids area during the experiment.

My family and I have seen the goMARTI vans operating in Grand Rapids this past year. They move methodically through the city and never seem to cause much trouble. You hear once in a while about one getting stumped in an odd traffic situation, but it seems pretty rare.

The service was a boon for kids who needed rides home from after-school activities. Many of my sons’ friends in school made use of the goMARTI vans. Unfortunately, the company later revised their policies to require an adult to ride with kids under 18. But this year the service will extend to the Minnesota North Itasca campus where many adult students lack cars.

Where the goMARTI really excelled was in helping people in wheelchairs get around in the winter or during inclement weather. Three of the five vans are fully accessible with wheelchair ramps. 

You can find out how to use the goMARTI app to request rides at gomarti.com. 

Ultimately, self-driving cars will become more common in all our communities. The technology will improve. Many of today’s skeptics will eventually lay down their money for one of their own. 

What’s telling about this experiment, however, is that people are hungry for public transportation solutions even more than autonomous driving solutions. 

For 100 years, we’ve developed our small towns to serve the automobile, which is great if you have one. But disabled, elderly and low-income residents have always struggled with this policy choice, and if you don’t understand go ask somebody of that description. 

Small towns like ours struggle to keep their old busses running and can’t offer the reliability and capacity that big cities can offer. Because the people who need service the most are the least vocal, least powerful and least monied people in town, they have been easy to ignore. But with an aging population and rising costs of new and used cars, more small town people will need public transportation in coming years. 

Let’s hope experiments like goMARTI drive real change.

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and co-hosts the podcast “Power in the Wilderness” on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023 edition of the Mesabi Tribune.

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