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White Bear Lake has become the second city in Minnesota to try out driverless shuttles for local residents, thanks to a Minnesota Department of Transportation pilot project.

The new Bear Tracks self-driving electric minibus went live on Monday, running on a 1.5 mile route between the Phoenix Alternatives, Inc. Day program to the White Bear Area YMCA. 

It's available to ride Monday through Friday, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. The vehicles are only available for up to ten passengers at a time, with all riders requiring to be seated with seatbelts when the shuttle is in motion. The fully-electric shuttle goes up to 15 mph.

Cory Johnson, program lead in MnDOT's Office of Connected and Automated Vehicles (CAV), said the concept has been well received early on.

"Ever since our kickoff event on Friday, we've been getting good feedback. A lot of people think it's a good idea to do," Johnson told Bring Me The News on Tuesday.

The state's first automated shuttle pilot project, the Med City Mover, started in Rochester in 2021, running on a 1.5 mile loop downtown. MnDOT says the program will cease operations at the end of the month, bringing a close to the 12-month project. 

Johnson said it's still too early to tell when it comes to data learned from the Rochester program, but said over 250,000 riders participated in it. Overall, he said there's "mixed reaction" from people.

"We saw a lot more interactions in the streets involving pedestrians, and drivers, so we're getting a lot of data points that we're really starting to evaluate," he said. "Some love it, some don't. But people overall are interested in it."

The Bear Tracks project, which will also last a year, is costing MnDOT $900,000.

A third automated shuttle service will make its debut in Grand Rapids later this year. Multiple self-driving vehicles will make up the pilot program called goMARTI. Free, on-demand rides will be available in the Iron Range area starting in the Fall, according to MnDOT.

According to the BearTracks pilot program's website, the vehicles "use technology to communicate with other vehicles, connect with traffic signals, signs and other road items, or obtain data from a cloud." 

The vehicles also use technology to steer, accelerate and brake with little to no human help. Some of these mini buses still require a person to monitor the roadway, while others requiring zero assistance from a human — otherwise known as "self-driving vehicles."

Earlier this year, the White Bear Lake City Council rejected a 15-mile rapid bus service that connects downtown St. Paul and White Bear Lake. The Pioneer Press reports some residents in the area felt like the implementation of the Purple Line would be a "destruction of our downtown community feel."

Bear Tracks shuttle map

The Bear Tracks shuttle service route in White Bear Lake.

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