Humphrey School News—October 18, 2017

Self-Driving Vehicles on the Horizon; Humphrey School Works to Ensure They're Accessible to All


A driverless bus on a city street
A self-driving bus

When Myrna Peterson wants to visit downtown Grand Rapids, Minnesota, from her home two miles outside the city limits, she uses the most convenient vehicle she has: her motorized wheelchair. Peterson, who has been in a wheelchair since she was seriously injured in a 1995 car accident, has few other options to get around town.

“I used to run marathons, and I can roll a 10-minute mile,” Peterson says. “It’s about five miles from one end of town to the other. My chair goes 11 to 12 miles on one charge, but some days I run out of juice.”

Grand Rapids, a city of about 11,000 people in north central Minnesota, is like many other small communities in Greater Minnesota. It has limited bus service, especially during the evenings and on weekends. People with mobility issues, like Peterson, face even more constraints when trying to go shopping, get to an appointment, or go out to dinner.

That’s why Peterson has become an advocate for more accessible transportation in her community, and wants Grand Rapids to be the location of a pilot program to test driverless vehicles.

Myrna Peterson of Grand Rapids, Minnesota

“Rural outstate communities are often the last ones to get advanced services, but we need them the most because we have greater distances to travel and fewer people,” she says, “and school districts have bus routes that cover vast numbers of miles.”

Peterson served on a task force, along with researchers from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Center for Transportation Studies, to examine issues of equity and access to driverless cars for people with low incomes or disabilities. 

Driverless cars are just that: vehicles that navigate their routes without human input. They’re capable of sensing their surroundings through GPS, radar, laser light, computer vision, and other control technologies. Vehicles of different sizes are being designed to serve different purposes: to transport one individual, a family, or a few dozen people a few blocks or to a city down the road. 

“This technology has the potential, if deployed correctly, to improve mobility and access for people who can’t drive,” says Frank Douma, director of the Humphrey School’s State and Local Policy Program and an expert on driverless vehicles. “The populations that can’t drive now include those with disabilities, senior citizens, and those who can’t afford to own a car.”

That question—how to deploy the technology in an equitable manner—is what Douma and his research team are trying to answer, especially for smaller communities.  

“One option is to improve rural transit. It’s very expensive per ride now, and a lot of the cost is for the drivers,” says Douma. “If you can supplement that service with driverless shuttles, which have a lower cost to operate, then you can increase the frequency of service. Or a community could set up a co-op system and purchase vehicles that everyone could share.”

It’s not just small towns that could benefit from this technology. Sandy Vargas, senior executive leadership fellow at the Humphrey School and chair of the task force, points out that many urban residents also have limited access to transportation.

“For example, many people live in Minneapolis but the job growth is in the suburbs, and the transit system has not been able to respond,” says Vargas.  “People may have to ride two or three buses to get to work, especially if they work second or third shift or have more than one job.”

Vargas adds this issue of transportation access is part of a persistent pattern, where people in low-income communities and those with disabilities are often left out of the conversations about employment and economic development strategies.

“The equity task force was a good way to include a lot of different voices in the discussion,” Vargas says. “A lot of times, the practitioners don’t make an effort to look at the effect on people whose voices are not always heard.”

The task force identified several issues that should be addressed as planning on driverless vehicles moves forward:

  • There is a lack of research and no clear vision for self-driving vehicles in rural areas
  • The transportation needs of Minnesota’s tribal nations must be considered
  • Provisions and regulations must be established to ensure that  travel on self-driving vehicles is affordable and accessible to all people, regardless of income and ability
  • Barriers to accessible transportation currently exist; state and local planners must address those issues regardless of whether driverless cars become a reality

 “The Humphrey School’s involvement in this conversation fits with our mission to improve and strengthen our democracy,” said Vargas. “The ability for Minnesotans to access adequate transportation is a key resource for making sure our state is prosperous, successful and equitable.”

The task force completed its formal duties over the summer, but the discussion over how to implement driverless technologies on an equitable basis is just getting started. The next step for Douma and his research team is to convene discussion groups of potential users, decision-makers and other stakeholders in communities in greater Minnesota.

The first session is scheduled next month in Grand Rapids. Myrna Peterson, who likely will arrive at the meeting in her motorized wheelchair, says community leaders there will meet to discuss what it would take for them to become a testing ground for driverless vehicles.

“We’re excited to be given the opportunity, and we want to know more answers,” she says.   

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