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Driverless shuttle launches in downtown Tampa

The Beep autonomous vehicle will launch to the public Monday, giving many people in Tampa Bay their first chance to catch a ride in a driverless vehicle.

TAMPA — A 16-foot shuttle that cruised down N Marion Street at 15 mph Friday morning lacked two common things: a steering wheel and a driver.

Instead, GPS, radar and light sensors guided the shuttle through intersections and past cars. When needed, an onboard shuttle specialist picked up an X-box controller and helped navigate around traffic cones and construction crews.

“For the most part, we’re about 93-percent autonomous,” said Beep junior support engineer Rhys Reid, 19, as he paused the shuttle at a Kennedy Boulevard traffic light Friday.

“In certain cases, the shuttle’s not smart enough to make a decision on its own yet. In that case, the shuttle specialist on board will have to decide, ‘I don’t think it’s safe to do this, let me engage manual mode.’”

The Beep autonomous vehicle will launch to the public Monday, giving many people in Tampa Bay their first chance to catch a ride in a driverless vehicle. It’s the first time the autonomous mobility company has deployed a transit vehicle on public roads in Florida.

The million dollar, one-year pilot is a partnership between the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation. It’s the county’s third attempt in four years to bring a driverless transit option to Tampa. A similar initiative is planned to launch along Bayshore Drive in St. Petersburg next month.

Related: Driverless shuttle could run along St. Petersburg's Bayshore Drive this fall.

The goal for Hillsborough’s pilot is to make it easier for people to move around downtown Tampa while also getting a sense of what kind of role driverless cars and buses could play here in the future.

“HART is always looking for cutting-edge and cost-effective ways to deliver service,” deputy chief of transportation Ruthie Reyes Burckard said at the shuttle’s ribbon cutting ceremony Friday. “We feel this project is not only a test of that technology, but also provides a real value to our customers and, of course, this community.”

Rhys Reid, 19, on right in front, Beep Junior Support Engineer, drives the shuttle in manual mode during a ride on the Beep autonomous shuttle on Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 in Tampa. In background, on left is Ruthie Reyes Burckard, HART Deputy Chief of Transportation, and Joe Moye, Beep CEO. HART launches its driverless shuttle pilot Friday, the first of its kind in Tampa Bay. Beep is the company that manufactures the shuttle. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The shuttle, which is free to ride, will run from the Marion Transit Center to Whiting Street, making four stops along the way.

In order to operate safely, the vehicle relies on a detailed map of the area that’s managed by a GPS, Beep chief executive Joe Moye said. That route serves as the shuttle’s virtual rails.

“Those wheels are within two millimeters of that path at all times,” Moye said. “It never deviates.”

A primary sensor on top of the vehicle uses light and radar to create a three-dimensional image of everything it sees, Moye said, essentially serving as the shuttle’s virtual eyes.

Much of the 12-block corridor is closed to regular traffic, but the shuttle will interact with cars and buses at the northern end, near the Marion Transit Center.

Pinellas’ driverless shuttle pilot, which is also through Beep, will run in mixed traffic from the Vinoy hotel to the Dali Museum. The plan, Moye said, is to operate that route for three months before testing similar efforts in Dunedin and Clearwater.

Related: HART's driverless shuttle on hold for downtown Tampa

Hillsborough’s shuttle will have limited hours initially, carrying riders from 6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m. daily. A second phase involves continuous service from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The shuttle has space for 11 passengers, but will be limited to six for now as part of coronavirus precautions. Passengers are required to wear masks and are encouraged to sit in separate corners.

The route provides a much-needed connection between the county’s most popular transit center and the TECO Line Streetcar. More than a dozen bus routes pass through Marion Transit Center, along with the Downtowner, Megabus and RedCoach. The streetcar, which eliminated fares two years ago, has a stop 100 feet from the shuttle’s southern end point at Whiting Street. From there, riders can connect to Ybor City, the Channel District and other parts of downtown.

A look inside the Beep autonomous shuttle, parked on the Marion Transit Way, in front of WeWork Tampa, 501 E Kennedy Blvd, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020 in Tampa. HART launches its driverless shuttle pilot Friday, the first of its kind in Tampa Bay. Beep is the company that manufactures the shuttle. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Burckard said there is opportunity for HART to expand the pilot, which has an additional two-year option. The agency will study ridership, safety and other data points through the year to determine how else the agency could use the technology, Burckard said. That could include expansions to the Riverwalk and other parts of downtown, supplementing bus service in lesser traveled parts of the county or creating new options in places like the University of South Florida innovation district.

Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, has been working to bring automated vehicles to Florida for nearly a decade. He called Friday’s event an exciting first step.

While engineers and manufacturers have long studied driverless cars, they remain a novelty to most people. Accidents involving Google and Uber self-driving cars, such as two in Arizona that killed one person and injured another, get widespread attention. And while new car owners may experience some automated elements, like lane assist and automatic breaking, few have sat in the passenger seat of a driverless vehicle.

Factors like these could contribute to skepticism from potential riders, but both Brandes and local transportation secretary David Gwynn think the Beep pilot will help people become more comfortable with driverless tech.

“I think people are going to be curious at first, and then they’re going to be excited,” Brandes said.

“This will be new for a little bit, but pretty soon it’s going to be something they get used to and want to see expanded," Gwynn said.

But the most important thing, Gwynn said, is the potential for automated cars and buses to reduce crashes and deaths in the state. More than 35,000 people are killed in crashes in the United States each year. Many of those are attributed to distracted or impaired drivers.

Automated tech has the chance to elimination those risks, Moye said. “These things are never staring at their cell phones and they never drink."