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Minn. to try out driverless bus in depths of winter

EasyMile’s EZ10 Generation 2 vehicle, pictured here in the company’s hometown of Toulouse, France, was rolled out in August. The Minnesota Department of Transportation will test the model to see if it can cope with the state’s harsh winter weather. (Submitted photo: EasyMile)

EasyMile’s EZ10 Generation 2 vehicle, pictured here in the company’s hometown of Toulouse, France, was rolled out in August. The Minnesota Department of Transportation will test the model to see if it can cope with the state’s harsh winter weather. (Submitted photo: EasyMile)

Clare Kennedy
BridgeTower Media Newswires

The Minnesota Department of Transportation will begin testing an autonomous bus this fall and plans to have a public demonstration of the vehicles’ capabilities during the week leading up to next year’s Super Bowl, which will be held on Feb. 4 in Minneapolis.

MnDOT announced plans earlier this year to study autonomous shuttle-bus technology. On Wednesday the department said it will carry out its test with the driverless-technology company EasyMile, which is based in Toulouse, France.

EasyMile is also in the midst of opening its first North American office, in Denver, said Lauren Isaac, director of business initiatives at the company.

MnDOT’s main goal is to subject EasyMile’s EZ10 Generation 2 vehicle, which rolled out in August, to Minnesota’s harsh winter. State officials want to learn how the buses perform amid low temperatures, ice, snow, sleet and black ice, with or without help from road salt.

Maplewood-based 3M Co. will be involved in the research as well, using the planned tests as an opportunity to try out sensor-enhancing technology and road-safety materials.

The testing will begin in November at MnDOT’s site near Albertville and run through February. EasyMile vehicles have operated in 19 different countries, Isaac said, and have transported about 180,000 people.

“What’s really exciting about this project for us is that we can learn about how our vehicle operates in winter weather, which will be a first for us,” Isaac said. “We have had lots of operations in temperate-, tropical- and hot weather-climates, but we don’t know how the vehicle does in icy, snowy conditions.”

EasyMile separately plans to conduct cold-weather tests in Finland and Norway this winter.

The company was one of two vendors considered for the test drives, said Susan Roe, a spokeswoman for MnDOT. MnDOT will lease just one vehicle, which will be used in the test and demonstrations planned for February.

Isaac said the vehicles are the “latest and greatest” version of the nascent technology. They operate autonomously at low speeds, going as fast as 25 mph on pre-mapped routes. They can transport six seated passengers and up to 12 standing. The bus also has an automatically deploying wheelchair ramp.

“It’s best used as a first- and last-mile transportation option,” Isaac said.

The shuttle buses sell for about $240,000 each and take several months to make at a factory in France. Isaac declined to disclose how much the vehicles lease for.

The public demonstration will occur sometime during the week leading up to next year’s Super Bowl, which is to take place on Feb. 4 at the U.S. Bank Stadium. But the exact dates, times and locations have not yet been selected, Roe said. The demonstrations will give onlookers an opportunity to not only see the technology in action but perhaps also ride on one of the buses on a closed road.

The demonstrations will likely occur within the city of Minneapolis, said Jay Hietpas, MnDOT director of traffic, safety and technology. EasyMile is coming next week to review possible locations, he said.

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