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OT County weighs in on self-driving vehicles

Self-driving vehicles were addressed at the county board meeting Aug. 22 at the operations center in the town of Ottertail. (submitted photo) 1 / 2
Max Donath2 / 2

Self-driving vehicles are seen as the way of the future in Otter Tail County and all across the state and nation.

To that end, county board members invited Max Donath, director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute at the University of Minnesota, to address the county board August 22 in Ottertail at the county operations center.

"Dealing with the unexpected when it comes to self-driving vehicles is the real challenge," said Donath. "For that reason, we're not there yet when it comes to widespread use of self-driving vehicles."

Minnesota, he said, will likely attract automotive manufacturers and technology companies involved with self-driving vehicle research and development.

"There will be opportunities for innovators and entrepreneurs," he said. "Most importantly is the significant opportunity to improve the health, safety and well-being of Minnesota residents."

But before that can happen, Donath says safety concerns need to be addressed.

"We need to have in place safety applications in self-driving vehicles that will alert drivers to certain dangers," he said.

To that end, Donath supports both high automation when the driver is partially in control and full automation when the driver feels the self-driving vehicle can make computerized decisions on its own. For the latter use (full automation), an example might be several miles of open roadway with few if any turns.

"We need further research on crash avoidance technology when things go wrong," he said. "And in Minnesota there will be self-driving issues when we have snow and ice during the winter months. In the summer there are issues such as oil spots and puddles."

Then there are ethical issues, said Donath. What if the self-driving vehicle sees two obstacles ahead, one being a pole and another a child running across the roadway?

"That's why our institute recommends a gradual transition to self-driving vehicles," he said.

For now, the question is no longer "if" self-driving vehicles will appear in Otter Tail County, but "when" on our city streets and county highways.