A system of driverless cars that help get Eden Prairie workers from transit stations to their companies’ front doors, and back again, might be 5-10 years away. But, SouthWest Transit and City of Eden Prairie officials are working now to make sure EP is first in line when it’s time for a federal- and state-funded pilot project.
They are encouraged by the possibility that they have the perfect proving grounds: The “Golden Triangle” area of northeastern Eden Prairie, bounded by Highway 169 on the east, Highway 212 on the west, and Interstate 494 on the south. It’s home to nearly 10 million square feet of industrial and office space, and more than 20,000 persons travel in to and out of this area every workday. And, Optum’s headquarters is just a couple of blocks away.
That very concentrated business area is also on existing bus lines and will host a transit station when the 15-mile-long, Minneapolis-to-Eden-Prairie Southwest Light-Rail Transit (LRT) project is finally complete in 2025 or 2026.
But even with that bus and LRT service, the real challenge for workers and companies in the Golden Triangle and other Eden Prairie employment centers is what planners call “the last mile”: getting workers from transit stops to their office desks when walking isn’t convenient.
That’s where driverless or autonomous vehicles – also called “connected and automated vehicles,” or CAV’s – will be valuable: able to transport workers those few blocks, continuously circulating on a dynamic schedule, and without the high labor costs that come with vans or buses with drivers.
“We’re pretty well set on what we want to do,” said Len Simich, the chief executive officer of Eden Prairie-based SouthWest Transit. “But we’re still not there in the bus industry.”
But some pilot programs in Minnesota are underway or getting off the drawing board.
Rochester has a $1.5-million state program where a toaster-shaped, battery-powered, driverless vehicle is operating on a 1.5-mile loop between a food co-op and the Mayo Clinic to learn more about how to move people around, including in a Minnesota winter. It launched in September.
In addition, plans are underway to test an autonomous-vehicle shuttle in a rural Minnesota city – Grand Rapids – sometime in 2022. It will run on a fixed route connecting the north and south sides of that city.
Colorado, Arizona, and California are among the states ahead of Minnesota in testing autonomous vehicles, says Simich, and he finds many of those vehicles “clunky” and “slow.” Plus, says SouthWest Chief Operating Officer Matt Fyten, those vehicles are mostly following a fixed route, often a loop composed of only right turns.
If it sounds like SouthWest Transit is being patient and picky about the future of autonomous vehicles in Eden Prairie, it’s because they are.
What SouthWest Transit is aiming for is a higher level of technology – a van or SUV able to safely navigate a complex series of right or left turns in moving traffic and at normal speeds and on an ever-changing schedule – and a regulatory landscape where all the issues of safety, insurance, and liability have been solved.
In other words, they are waiting for a few more leaps in science and government.
“It’s really the live traffic piece that’s going to be the big hurdle,” said Fyten.
“And there’s a big safety component,” Simich added. “Whatever we roll out, we want it to be as safe as it can be.”
While it’s a bit of a watching-and-waiting game, Simich and Fyten believe SouthWest Transit is in a good position to win pilot-program federal and state funding when the time is right. They’ve launched a number of public-transit innovations over the years, including the micro-transit, Uber-like, door-to-door service known as SW Prime. Conceived on a cocktail napkin, the on-demand and shared-ride Prime service has grown and become a topic they’ve spoken on nationwide.
In the meantime, they’ll be experimenting with Tesla technology and converting one of their high-top vans to be all-electric.
As for an autonomous-vehicle pilot, they also seem to have an enthusiastic partner in the City of Eden Prairie.
Director of Public Works Robert Ellis said city officials are making sure SouthWest Transit and the Minnesota Department of Transportation know that Eden Prairie is interested in being a partner in any local experiment using driverless cars.
“Yes, we suspect it’s probably longer than what we’d like before we see significant movement in this area,” said Ellis, noting that many steps remain. “But we’re letting them know Eden Prairie is interested in being a pilot location.”
What would an Eden Prairie look like if cars and buses drove themselves? We may know within a decade.
(Mark Weber is a volunteer writer for EPLN. He serves as executive director of the Eden Prairie Community Foundation.)