WHITE BEAR LAKE — Thanks to overtures from the Area Chamber of Commerce, the city may serve as a pilot site for pilotless vehicles. 

University of Minnesota researcher Frank Douma put out a call for community partners interested in testing an autonomous vehicle on its streets. Chamber Executive Director Tom Snell was first to respond.

Deploying driverless cars on local roads require local decisions. At a mid-January meeting hosted by the chamber with Douma and city, school district and business representatives, the idea gained serious traction. 

"There's a lot of private investment right now," said Douma, who is director of state and local policy at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "More money can be made by selling rides than vehicles. This would provide mobility and access to people who can't drive."

Big-name players in the field of autonomous vehicles include Google's Waymo, which currently operates driverless minivans in major cities like Phoenix, San Francisco, Austin and Atlanta, General Motors and Ford. GM plans to offer a self-driving ride-share service called Cruise by end of 2019. Ford promises to have a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021. Polaris is making a vehicle called GEM (global electric mobility) it is testing in downtown Detroit. Waymo also plans to add 20,000 electric Jaguars to its autonomous fleet. 

In Minnesota, grant money is now available for pilot projects through a MnDOT program called Connected and Automotive Vehicle (CAV) Challenge, a program Douma hopes to tap to fund a possible robo taxi locally.

Shuttles like the electric, French-built EZ10 demonstrated on the Twin Cities campus last year could be deployed in White Bear Lake. Douma thinks the locale would make a great place to showcase the technology. "We want people to see it work, get a chance to ride around in it," he noted, adding the city has the demographics and density for a test project. 

Although it could change, the autonomous expert is proposing a route that would take elderly riders from the Senior Center in White Bear to Aldi's in Mahtomedi. 

City Manager Ellen Hiniker told the group attending the chamber meeting that interest in the concept is high. She suggested forming a small committee as the next step to making it happen and agreed the project is worth the time commitment.

Next steps, Douma said, are to engage with local stakeholders to understand community needs, address potential hurdles and determine what an ideal route would look like. 

He hopes to have a plan completed by late spring. If all goes well with the project, it's possible a demonstration could be up and running in less than three years. If it meets a need, it could build into something more permanent. 

An enthusiastic Tom Snell looks at the shuttle service as a marketing tool. 

"People will see that our area is a center for innovation. When the creative class looks at where they want to settle, they will look favorably at White Bear Lake and the dynamics this area can bring."

Added Snell: "These vehicles are coming much sooner than we think."

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