1. Autonomous shuttle hits the Minnesota streets to test cold-weather operations
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  • Autonomous shuttle hits the Minnesota streets to test cold-weather operations

    By Evelyn Padilla, 3M Storyteller and Eliot Popko, 3M Videographer

    MnDOT’s Autonomous Shuttle Bus, showing glowing at dusk

    • A future where sitting back and scrolling through your social media feed as you go on a grocery run – while your vehicle does the driving – may be closer than you think.

      But for those of us who don’t live in warm climates where a lot of autonomous shuttle testing is happening, one question comes to mind – how will these cars do in the snow?

      The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is working on an answer. Their latest venture is a miniature, pod-like autonomous shuttle that can hold up to 12 passengers. Equipped with climate controls, wheelchair accessibility, ports to charge your electronics and several safety features, this is the Bold North’s plunge into the world of driverless vehicles.

    • Can a driverless vehicle handle inclement weather?

      MnDOT’s Autonomous Shuttle Bus Pilot Project aims to tackle one obvious challenge: Minnesota winter.

      “There’s a lot of autonomous vehicle testing around the country and around the world, but most of it is happening in the warm weather climates,” explains Jay Hietpas, MnDOT’s state traffic engineer. “Snow, ice and salt are some of the biggest challenges for Minnesota, and things that work well in Southern states may not work well here.”

      If you’ve grown up in states like California, Arizona or Florida – where testing is happening – you probably aren’t too concerned with icy roads, salty muck on your headlights and, most of all, white-out conditions caused by snow. But for states that are accustomed to more inclement weather, these conditions can cause some anxiety.

      “Clear skies and dry roads are the ideal environment to start testing out the capabilities of the next generation of vehicles,” says Jonah Shaver, 3M senior product development engineer, “but eventually they will need to get their feet wet some place with more challenging conditions.”

    • Closeup image showing a sensor on the outside of the autonomous shuttle

      Protecting an autonomous vehicle’s eyes

      Autonomous vehicles are equipped with various cameras and use a combination of sensors to help direct their movements. Rain, snow, road spray or debris can negatively impact the performance of these sensors. To reach fully autonomous capabilities, the vehicle must be connected and responsive 100 percent of the time. Jonah and his team are testing various types of engineered films on the MnDOT shuttle to protect its sensors.

      “We’re evaluating durable and resilient materials chemistries with special water-shedding and easy-clean properties that are beneficial to sensor systems,” he says. “The durable and resilient materials enable recovery after scratching or gouging from road debris, preserving delicate optical surfaces.”

      Jonah explains that protecting the sensors of an autonomous vehicle is like protecting one’s eyesight. For example, water droplets that stick to the surface of a sensor can cause bright spots in their field of view, washing out the image and blinding the sensor. It’s like getting water in your eye – painful – and potentially hazardous.

      “Water-shedding coatings cause rain and splashed liquids to bead up, letting the water roll off the sensor’s surface. Easy cleaning is important to quickly release dirt and road grime with only a spray of water instead of a wiper blade,” Jonah explains. “Even in warm, dry climates, sensor protection is vital to increasing the operational time and lifetime of autonomous vehicles’ systems.”

    • Communicating with road signs

      It’s no surprise that with all the buzz surrounding driverless cars, there is still some apprehension. People have questions. What if I still want to drive my own vehicle? How will autonomous vehicles impact the future of our roadways? Will drivers and autonomous vehicles be able to share the road? All good questions. And the answers are still being worked on. “We are interested in seeing what 3M can bring with the connected-vehicle component of this project,” says Jay.

      At 3M, a team of software developers and engineers have been working tirelessly – and enthusiastically – to address some of these questions. First and foremost, their goal is to design smart infrastructure to help increase the safety of roadways for drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians. Another goal is to look for ways to enhance existing infrastructure by enabling multiple safety solutions that can guide autonomous vehicles should any component of the vehicle system fail.

      The MnDOT shuttle is currently being tested on 3M’s Connected Roads program. “We’ve now installed our camera system on the MnDOT shuttle. This enables the shuttle to read the signs with 2D Smart Code and near-infrared reflecting technologies,” explains Travis Potts, a 3M senior technologist. “These technologies give the autonomous shuttle the ability to read signs using higher-accuracy machine-vision algorithms.” Essentially, the signs are both human readable and machine readable, but use different technologies. Picture this: you’re driving down the road, and you see a regular road sign – nothing out of the ordinary. What you may not realize is that, on that same road sign, there’s a smart code that can only be read by an autonomous vehicle. This code is designed to enable that vehicle’s sensors to read and interpret the data. In addition, these codes link back to a central database with information about changing road conditions, like icy roads.

    • Designing the right look

      In addition to approaching 3M to help find solutions to protect its sensor systems and connected components, they tapped Mike Welter to design the right look of this innovative vehicle. As a senior designer in 3M Design, Mike has worked on various eye-catching projects.

      “They were looking for a high-impact, bold, but still minimalistic look,” he says. Mike was asked to create something that would be visible from the highway as MnDOT tested the vehicle at their facility in Monticello, Minnesota. The result was a vibrant mix of orange, blue and green above a black base, giving the shuttle a modern, clean vibe. Much like a road sign, when light hits the shuttle’s exterior, it reveals a striking pop of color.

      “I used the reflective graphic wrap film, because I think reflectivity coincides with safety, and it seemed like a good way to relay that message,” Mike explains. “They also wanted something that would stand out and create that bold look.”

    • Driving into the future

      With partnerships like this, MnDOT hopes to be a leader in finding solutions to the biggest challenges facing their geographic region. “We are trying to see how we can advance the whole industry moving forward,” says Jay. “We think that winter-weather testing, in addition to work-zone testing, is the future for us.”

      For software junkies like Jim Howard, a 3M software development specialist, having a hand in shaping the future of transportation is a huge incentive. “It's really cool to be involved in something that might affect so many people's daily lives through improved safety and mobility,” says Jim. “You don’t get too many opportunities to work on something that can have such a large impact on people.”

    Still image from video showing MnDOT’s shuttle operating in Monticello, Minnesota
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    Ride along as we take a test trip on the shuttle.

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    Technology is rapidly evolving to pave the way for the future of transportation. Explore how 3M is advancing science in the field, and learn more about MnDOT’s pilot project.