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MN project part of autonomous vehicles movement for people with disabilities

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Friday, January 12, 2024   

By Tony Leys for KFF Health News.
Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Minnesota News Connection reporting for the KFF Health News-Public News Service Collaboration


Myrna Peterson predicts self-driving vehicles will be a ticket out of isolation and loneliness for people like her, who live outside big cities and have disabilities that prevent them from driving.

Peterson, who has quadriplegia, is an enthusiastic participant in an unusual test of autonomous vehicles in this corner of northern Minnesota. She helped attract government funding to bring five self-driving vans to Grand Rapids, a city of 11,000 people in a region of pine and birch forests along the Mississippi River.

The project's self-driving vans always have a human operator in the driver's seat, poised to take over in complicated situations. But the computers are in control about 90% of the time, and they've given 5,000 rides since 2022 without any accidents, organizers say.

"It's been fun. I'm really sold on it," said Peterson, who used to rely on her power wheelchair to travel around town, even in winter.

Autonomous vehicles, which can drive themselves at least part of the time, are making news in urban areas, such as San Francisco, where extensive tests of the technology are underway.

Rural experiments have been set up in a few other states, including Iowa and Ohio. Peterson hopes the pilot projects help bring a day when fully autonomous cars and vans assist the estimated 25 million Americans whose travel is limited by disabilities.

Fully independent vehicles remain far from everyday options, as tech companies and automakers struggle to perfect the technology. Recently, for example, General Motors recalled all its self-driving cars after one struck and dragged a pedestrian who had been hit by another vehicle.

But Waymo, a corporate relative of Google, is forging ahead with fully autonomous taxi rides in multiple cities.

Peterson is among those who believe autonomous vehicles someday will become safer than human-driven models.

"Look at how many times the lightbulb failed before it worked," she said.

Unlike many smaller towns, Grand Rapids has public buses and a taxi service. But Peterson said those options don't always work well, especially for people with disabilities. The autonomous vehicle program, known as goMARTI, which stands for Minnesota's Autonomous Rural Transit Initiative, offers a flexible alternative, she said. She hopes it eventually will ease a national shortage of drivers, which tends to be especially acute in rural regions.

The project is funded through the spring of 2027 with more than $13 million from federal, state, and local sources, much of it coming from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill.

The project's distinctive Toyota minivans are outfitted by a Michigan company, May Mobility, which is backed by the Japanese auto giant and other investors. Slogans painted on the side invite the public to "Experience Self Driving in Minnesota's Nature." The vans bristle with technology, including cameras, radar, GPS, and laser sensors. Their computer systems constantly monitor surroundings and learn from situations they encounter, said Jon Dege, who helps manage the project for May Mobility.

Users arrange free rides via a smartphone app or the 211 social service telephone line.

On a recent chilly afternoon, a goMARTI van pulled up near Peterson's house. She soon emerged, bundled in a bright purple parka honoring her beloved Minnesota Vikings football team. She rolled her electric wheelchair to the van, up a ramp, and into the back. Van operator Mark Haase helped strap the wheelchair in, then climbed into the driver's seat for a demonstration.

As the van pulled onto the street, the steering wheel seemed to shudder, reflecting tiny adjustments the computer made. Haase kept his foot poised near the brake pedal and his hands cupped around the steering wheel, ready to take over if a complication came up. After moments when he needed to take control of the vehicle, he pressed a button telling the computer system to resume command. "It was weird at first, but it didn't take long to get used to it and trust the system," Haase said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation helped direct federal money toward the Grand Rapids project, which followed a similar effort in the southern Minnesota city of Rochester. Tara Olds, the department's director of connected and automated vehicles, said her agency sought smaller communities that wanted to give autonomous vehicles a shot.

Neither kind of driver will ever be perfect, Olds said. "You know, humans make mistakes, and computers make mistakes," she said. But the public would understandably react differently if a fatal crash were caused by an autonomous vehicle instead of a human, she said.

Frank Douma, a research scholar at the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies, has analyzed the Grand Rapids project and other autonomous vehicle programs. He said running such projects in smaller towns isn't necessarily harder than doing so in urban areas. "It's just different."

For the foreseeable future, such services probably will need to run on predetermined routes, with regular stops, he said. It would be more complicated to have autonomous vehicles travel on demand to unfamiliar addresses out in the countryside.

Developers will need to overcome significant challenges before autonomous vehicles can become a regular part of rural life, he said. "But it's no longer something that can be dismissed as impossible."

A 2022 report from the National Disability Institute predicted that autonomous vehicles could help many people with disabilities get out of their homes and obtain jobs.

Tom Foley, the group's executive director, said a lack of transportation often causes isolation, which can lead to mental health problems. "There's an epidemic of loneliness, particularly for older people and particularly for people with disabilities," he said.

Foley, who is blind, has tried fully autonomous vehicles in San Francisco. He believes someday they will become a safe and practical alternative to human drivers, including in rural areas. "They don't text. They don't drink. They don't get distracted," he said.

For now, most riders who use wheelchairs need attendants to secure them inside a van before it starts moving. But researchers are looking into ways to automate that task so people who use wheelchairs can take advantage of fully autonomous vehicles.

The Grand Rapids project covers 35 miles of road, with 71 stops. The routes initially avoided parking lots, where human drivers often make unexpected decisions, Dege said. But organizers recognized the street-side stops could be challenging for many people, especially if they're among the 10% of goMARTI riders who use wheelchairs. The autonomous vans now drive into some parking lots to pick riders up at the door.

During the recent demonstration ride with Peterson and Haase, the van turned into a clinic parking lot. A lady in an orange car cut across the lot, heading for the front of the van. The computer driving the van hit the brakes. A split second later, Haase did the same. The orange car's driver smiled and gave a friendly Midwestern wave as she drove past.

The autonomous vans have gone out in nearly all kinds of weather, which can be a challenge in northern Minnesota. Grand Rapids received more than 7 feet of snow last winter.

"There were only three or four times when it was so snowy we had to pull it in," Dege said. The autonomous driving systems can handle snowflakes in the air and ice on the pavement, he said. They tend to get confused by snow piles, however. The human operators step in to assist in those situations while the computers learn how to master them.

The robot drivers can get stymied as well by roundabouts, also known as traffic circles. The setups are touted as safer than four-way stops, but they can befuddle human drivers too.

Haase took control each time the van approached a roundabout. He also took the wheel as the van came up on a man riding a bicycle along the right side of the road. "Better safe than sorry," Haase said. Once the van was a few yards past the bicycle, he pressed a button that told the robot to resume control.

Peterson takes the vans to stores, restaurants, community meetings, hockey games - "and church, of course, every Sunday and Wednesday," she said.

She said the project has brought Grand Rapids residents together to imagine a more inclusive future. "It's not just a fancy car," she said.


Tony Leys wrote this story for KFF Health News.

Disclosure: KFF Health News contributes to our fund for reporting. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.


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