In Rochester, the future of work could include this driverless shuttle

By Catherine Richert, Megan Burks and Tom Crann

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Development in downtown Rochester has been humming along despite the pandemic, and one of its latest offerings is a driverless shuttle.

This is no tram or monorail affixed to a track; the Med City Mover rolls along city streets, using sensors to detect and stop for pedestrians and red lights, and to navigate around objects in its path.

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert described it as a “miniature bus” when she recently met Destination Medical Center executive director Patrick Seeb to learn more about it, and how it fits into the city’s vision for the future.

Their conversation is transcribed below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tell me about the Med City Mover.

[It] is a test vehicle that is designed to test out driverless buses. It is here with us in Rochester for a year, as a part of an initiative by the Minnesota Department of Transportation to test out how people respond to autonomous vehicles and how they function in an urban setting. This one is electric powered, so we’re also going to learn a little bit about electric-powered vehicles in the wintertime.

There is, in fact, a person manning the vehicle, though he is not technically driving it. Explain his role to me.

We refer to the attendant as a concierge, and he welcomes people on, makes them feel comfortable, takes notes and learns from people about what their experiences are and how they are feeling about being on an autonomous vehicle. They’re also prepared to intercept or interrupt a situation if a problem emerged.

We have just one of these vehicles here in Rochester. It runs on a 1.5-mile loop. Where else is this being used?

We’re seeing these mostly on college campuses in a more dedicated lane. So this is one of the few places where it’s being done in an urban street system.

When this is implemented on a larger scale, assuming it is, how many of these vehicles would you envision? How many people would you envision it being able to move around?

I would say that what we’re testing today is not so much about this vehicle and this vehicle at a larger scale. It’s really helping contribute to the body of science around how autonomous vehicles work in an urban environment. I think that’s why [the Minnesota Department of Transportation], which is sponsoring this, looked to Rochester as a potential test site because, in many ways, Rochester is known as a city of innovation and a city that has a culture of learning.

But I will say this: As we are learning from this, these sort of miniature buses, as you described it, could be quite appealing. They have a very small footprint and can accommodate six people. And they look kind of cute.

Why does Rochester want these types of options, in terms of the type of people that you’re hoping will move here?

One, we know that as Rochester continues to grow, as Mayo Clinic continues to grow, our street system simply won’t accommodate as many cars as that, if that’s the only way of getting downtown. Moreover, we’re attracting people from around the country and around the world who are accustomed to all of these different options, all of these modes of transportation. It was only a few years ago that Rochester started to allow Uber and Lyft in the community, and I recall meeting professionals flying into Rochester, assuming they could get off at the airport and call an Uber, only to be surprised that wasn’t an option.

How has the pandemic shifted Destination Medical Center plans and timelines?

While we’re in the middle of it, it’s really hard to judge out ultimately what the impact will be. What we do know is that the demand for health care and the understanding of the value of public health and medicine has probably never been higher. And so it makes Rochester and Mayo Clinic even more appealing.

It also means it has changed the workforce, and where people work and how they structure their day. So if fewer of them have to come downtown to their job, it will require that we be more creative in attracting people to come to downtown — where they’re making a choice to come into the downtown.

Mayo has decided that at least some part of their workforce could be working from home indefinitely, which really alters the clientele that you might see down here, for instance, during lunchtime on a weekday, right?

Absolutely. And so perhaps those people who otherwise were coming to downtown every day for their jobs, may want to come down on weekends because they miss the energy and vitality of being out and about among friends and colleagues. We have to respond to that changing environment — and we can and we will.

Richert will take another look at development in downtown Rochester Wednesday on All Things Considered when she’ll introduce us to the owner of ThaiPop. Annie Balow has taken a bet on the city’s future, opening a restaurant downtown when many would-be customers are still working from home.

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