ST. PETERSBURG — A driverless shuttle could carry people up and down Bayshore Drive this fall, if county officials sign off on it.
The three-month, $140,000 pilot program was approved by Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority’s finance committee Wednesday, and the St. Petersburg City Council supported it unanimously Thursday. The county transit authority’s full board will vote next week. If approved, the program would start Nov. 15.
Beep, an autonomous mobility company based in Orlando, would provide two electric, 15-foot shuttles to cruise along the waterfront at a brisk 15 mph. The vehicles are able to carry 10 passengers but would be limited to six at a time as a coronavirus precaution.
A transit employee would be on board to supervise the technology and interact with passengers, but there would be no steering wheel. Instead, the shuttle would navigate on its own using GPS and other sensors. The on-board employee would be able to override the system with an X-Box-like controller.
“This is something that is very newfangled, but it is that teeny, tiny step in ultimately what is going to be the disruptive technology of the future,” St. Petersburg council member Darden Rice said. “It’s something we should probably get ahead of and embrace.”
This would be the first driverless transit vehicle in the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough’s transit authority and other officials have shown interest in supporting similar projects.
The one-mile route would include three stops: the Vinoy Renaissance and nearby park, the St. Pete Pier and the Dali Museum. Passengers would ride for free, and officials hope the shuttle would come every 10 minutes, at least during popular times.
Transit authority chair Joseph Barkley called the project “very intriguing” and asked what the agency is hoping to do with the automated technology long-term.
“If this is a success, do we have a part two of the project where we would actually start to operate something along these lines?” Barkley asked.
Transit planner Jacob Labutka said for now, the goal of the project is to gather data and get people used to the idea of automated technology. There is no money to extend the demonstration, he said. If residents and city officials like the idea, grants and other funding sources can be sought.
“If people feel comfortable riding it even with coronavirus out there, I think it will be a success,” transit authority chief executive Brad Miller said. “And it will help move the needle a little bit, getting people feeling comfortable with, ‘Hey, maybe this is the future for us.‘”
Pinellas transit officials are hoping this would be the first of three driverless pilot programs. They have their eye on similar initiatives in Clearwater and Dunedin, but would need federal approval and local money to make them happen.
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Running all three pilots would cost just over half a million dollars.
“We’re kind of hoping to do sort of a road show, if you will, where we start in St. Pete, then we move the shuttles to Clearwater, then Dunedin, or vice versa,” Labutka said. “Of course, that is dependent on us securing funding in the next three to six months.”
Transit board member and North Redington Beach Vice-Mayor Richard Bennett asked if the pilot presents any cost-saving opportunities for the transit agency. Labutka said the program is focused on learning about the technology and using that information. It would be unlikely to offset any costs in the short term.
“For us, this is really an exploratory mission,” Labutka said. “Nobody in the county or the Tampa Bay area has yet to deploy this technology.”