Tampa will get a look at its driverless downtown shuttle, launching in January

Published November 13 2017
Updated November 13 2017

TAMPA — Downtown’s newest way to get around is ready for its close-up.

The P-1 electric shuttle, an autonomous vehicle without a human driver, will be on display at the Fifth Annual Florida Automated Vehicles Summit, Tuesday and Wednesday at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay. The shuttle begins serving the public for free on a trial basis in January.

The P-1 has seats for 14 people plus standing room for six and will run 0.6 miles along Marion Street in eastern downtown from the Marion Transit Center south to Whiting Street and back.

Manufacturer Coast Autonomous, based in Pasadena, Calif., loaded up the P-1 with information about its environment by recording a three-dimensional map of all possible Marion Street pathways. Sensors will enable the P-1 to get smarter over time, detecting and reacting to pedestrians and other vehicles in a 360-degree range.

The vehicle has never been put into public use before.

It won’t cover much ground at first, but Coast managing director Adrian Sussman said it will fill a gap in transit for people working in a section of downtown.

"Every transit agency in the country has the same issue of trying to convince commuters to leave their cars at home and take public transportation," Sussman said. "But the biggest hurdle to this is the first mile from your house to the bus stop and the last mile from your office to the bus."

Autonomous vehicle technology aims to make commuting more accessible, convenient and environmentally friendly by reducing emissions and traffic and making it easier for those who cannot drive to retain their independence.

Tampa has some experience with autonomous shuttles already. In 2015, the Museum of Science and Industry conducted a yearlong electric shuttle pilot program that chief operating officer Rob Lamke called "very popular and relatively problem-free."

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority will operate the downtown shuttle and funding comes from the Florida Department of Transportation.

On its website, HART says Tampa would be the first city in the country to integrate driverless cars into daily public transportation. But it appears that distinction actually belongs to the city of Las Vegas, which launched a pilot program Wednesday using a different vehicle on a loop that is also 0.6 miles.

The Las Vegas shuttle ran into trouble on its first day: A delivery truck backing into an alleyway hit the front bumper of the shuttle while it was carrying eight passengers. No one was hurt and the truck driver was cited for illegal backing, said Las Vegas Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Laura Meltzer.

"The shuttle did what it was supposed to do — it sensed the truck and stopped," Jace Radke, city of Las Vegas spokesman, told the Tampa Bay Times. "The ironic part is that if the truck had been autonomous and equipped with sensors, the accident wouldn’t have happened at all."

It may take some persuading to get Tampa commuters on board.

"People behind the wheel are already nuts," said Andy Hornsby, 42, who rides the bus every day to his job downtown at Moxie’s Cafe. "You’re going to put me in a car with nobody driving? I don’t think so."

University of South Florida student Jen Fisher, 25, who recently began taking the bus to her three part-time jobs, said she’s reluctant.

"I know it’s supposed to be the newest technology, and I would try it if it was a direct link to my job, but it doesn’t make me very comfortable," she said.

Sussman said anyone concerned about safety should note that the shuttle will never exceed 25 mph, cannot become distracted like a person can and will automatically stop if it has any doubts about how to proceed. A report by Coast Autonomous said 94 percent of vehicle accidents are caused by human error.

A human conductor will monitor the vehicle and can interact with people onboard through a touch screen and microphone.

"Look at it like an elevator that runs along a street or between buildings rather than up and down inside," Sussman said. "Elevators had a human operator at first, too."

Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow
@LibBaldwin

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