Futurists worry the Twin Cities are falling behind on self-driving tech | Crain's Twin Cities

Futurists worry the Twin Cities are falling behind on self-driving tech

Driverless technology could free up space now occupied by garages, parking lots and driveways, says Tom Fisher, director of the Metropolitan Design Center. | Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In September, Lyft CEO John Zimmer posted an essay on Medium that practically giggled with enthusiasm. He declared the world to be on the cusp of the "third transportation revolution," when self-driving cars push us one step closer to "Star Trek" utopianism.

Simon Anderson, for one, can hardly wait. The Minneapolis business consultant even sold his Audi A8 a year ago and says that if things turn out the way he hopes, he'll never buy another. "My wife still has her car, but it's probably the last one we'll ever own." 

A self-described futurist, Anderson advises businesses that risk being swept away in technology's rush forward. He says he's noticed an intriguing trend among his clients: They all seem to think autonomous cars are going to burst onto the scene "in 20 years."

"That's the strange part," Anderson said. "It's always, 'Oh yeah, self-driving cars, they'll be big in 20 years.' The figure they go with is almost always '20 years.' I think that must be a psychologically safe amount of time for people."

It may be safe, but 20 years is much farther out than current predictions. Auto executives at the center of the autonomous vehicle revolution say the storm is coming and it's coming fast.

In his Medium essay, Zimmer of Lyft enthused that "by 2025, private car ownership will all but end in major U.S. cities." In August, Ford CEO Mark Fields declared that auto titan would have fully autonomous vehicles for sale by 2021 – just four years from now. ("Fully autonomous" in the industry means the car would be built without a steering wheel or pedals.) In April, Johann Jungwirth, a top strategist at Volkswagen, told German language magazine FOCUS that he expects fully autonomous cars on the market by no later than 2019. The magazine writer teased about Jungwirth's "typisch kalifornischem Anspruch" (typically Californian ambition). But even Richard Holman, head of General Motors' foresight and trends division, isn't too far off from Jungwirth's prediction. In April, he told a Wall Street Journal writer that autonomous vehicles “will be on the road by 2020, or sooner."

In the Twin Cities, there are scattered efforts to engage with the technology:

  • Serial entrepreneur and inventor Terry Anderson launched the Autonomous Tractor Corp. in 2012. For $10,000, ATC will convert a common tractor into a robotic workhorse that can till, rake and plant all on its own. After converting it into a diesel-electric hybrid, Anderson installs the system's base layer: an advanced GPS system that communicates with two satellite transponders. These sit on tripods out in the field and provide fixed parameters for the GPS. Then comes the guided laser, the sonar system and pan-tilt cameras. Last, there is the installation of AutoDrive, the patented laser-radio navigation system of Anderson's own design. The package includes GE's FieldSmart software that allows the tractor to be trained without programming.
  • The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority has a fleet of 21 commuter buses outfitted with an advanced driver assist system, or ADAS. The particular program used in the buses was invented at the University of Minnesota. If one of the upgraded buses comes close to crossing a boundary, the driver's visual display changes color. If the bus veers even further, the driver's seat vibrates on the veering side. If the bus veers further still, a torque motor engages and tugs the steering wheel back to center.
  • A Minnesota Department of Transportation district in southwest Minnesota invested $75,000 to install the university's ADAS on one snowplow. Chase Fester, a MnDOT supervisor, said the suped-up snowplow proved its worth last February when it led a train of 15 cars back to Windom from Heron Lake during a zero-visibility winter storm.
  • In December, U.S. Bank staged a hackathon in Edina, also known as a friendly competition between software developers. The winning team coded a prototype system that could theoretically use the sensors installed on autonomous vehicles to make plastic-free, phone-free payments at the drive-thru. To pay, a message would show up on your vehicle's display screen: "OK to pay $12.48?"
  • On Jan. 29, student teams from nine universities raced autonomous snowplows at the St. Paul Winter Carnival in hopes of shoveling away with the $7,000 cash prize and the "Golden Snow Globe." Dunwoody College of Technology snagged third and fifth places; the University of Minnesota's "Snow Squirrel" took fourth place.
  • In mid-December, officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation presented its thoughts on autonomous tech to 21 Minnesota mayors. Citing the work of University of Minnesota researchers, MnDOT forecasted that autonomous tech would transition into use over a 15-year span, reaching near market saturation around 2032.
  • Frank Douma, a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, has written several articles for academic journals about autonomous tech's legal implications as well as its potential for vast disruption within the insurance industry.
  • Tom Fisher, the director of the Metropolitan Design Center, has written extensively about autonomous vehicles and is particularly interested in how the technology will alter the built landscape. His latest book, "Designing Our Way to a Better World," was published by the University of Minnesota Press last year. His next book is tentatively titled "The On-Demand City."

"If you're asking about what's going on in the Twin Cities, basically, the short answer is that there's been a lot of talk," Fisher said. "But in terms of there being autonomous vehicles driving around like in Pittsburgh? There's nothing like that."

Twin Cities influencers are taking a wait-and-see approach, but other metros are aggressively courting the vanguards. Waymo, the autonomous tech company launched by Google in December, is testing its fleet of self-driving Lexus SUVs in Phoenix. Uber's self-driving XC-90 Volvos are tooling around Pittsburgh and the tech startup Otto recently completed the world's first autonomous beer truck delivery when they transported 52,000 cans of beer in Colorado between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs. Three different ventures including BlackBerry, are currently testing vehicles in Toronto.

"I am worried that perhaps we are behind where we should be," Fisher said. Not only for the lost cache but also for the tidal wave that is soon to hit. Transportation logistics companies such as C.H. Robinson in Eden Prairie could be devastated. Professional drivers of all stripes will be impacted.

Minneapolis business consultant and futurist Jack Uldrich thinks governments will likely have to transition to a per-mile tax structure when the coffers run shy of registration fees and moving-violation fines. "Of course there's also a big opportunity there for smaller cities that want to set themselves apart and offer transportation as a highly desirable service and amenity," Uldrich said. "They can say, 'Hey, you don't even need to own a car if you move here.'" 

Fisher thinks that autonomous tech will open up acres of urban space currently occupied by garages, parking lots and driveways. He points to the surprising stretch of green space on Roosevelt Avenue off of Franklin Avenue where a paved street just never happened to be built. Like the neighborhoods of the future, this little nook is only accessible by alleyway.

"I think that if we do this right, we'll be able to give back redundant streets to the neighborhoods and let them decide. Do they want green space for their kids? Do they want to use the space for power generation, or for shared recycling, or for a community play space? The beauty about all of this is that we can talk about the kind of city that we actually want to live in and not just the city that's been handed down to us."

February 6, 2017 - 12:28pm