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St. Pete launches driverless shuttle along Bayshore Drive

This is the second autonomous transit vehicle open to the public in Tampa Bay. But unlike Tampa’s pilot, this one travels a busy route.
Published Nov. 23, 2020
Updated Nov. 23, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — Starting Wednesday, people can move along St. Petersburg’s waterfront using a free shuttle — one that doesn’t have a driver or a steering wheel.

AVA, a driverless vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, will run up and down Bayshore Drive for the next three months. Elected officials and transportation experts got the chance to ride it Monday at a preview downtown.

Without a driver, the vehicle relies on GPS, radar and light sensors to navigate among intersections and cars. When needed, an onboard shuttle specialist picks up an X-box controller and helps move around traffic cones, pedestrians and other cars.

Related: Driverless shuttle launches in downtown Tampa

This is the second autonomous transit vehicle open to the public in Tampa Bay. But unlike Tampa’s pilot, which launched last month, this one shares its entire route with cars, bicyclists, buses and other modes of transportation.

“There’s lots of activity along this corridor, so it will be a great test of this technology,” said Brad Miller, chief executive officer of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Brad Miller, chief executive officer for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, rides the new driverless shuttle that will carry passengers for free along Bayshore Boulevard in St. Petersburg.
Brad Miller, chief executive officer for Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, rides the new driverless shuttle that will carry passengers for free along Bayshore Boulevard in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The shuttle is free to ride and runs 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. The one-mile route includes three stops — the Vinoy Renaissance and nearby park, the St. Pete Pier and the Dali Museum. Each location connects with other transportation options that can help people reach other parts of the region, including buses, the Downtown Looper and the Cross-Bay Ferry.

AVA, short for Autonomous Vehicle Advantage, will be available in St. Pete through Feb. 15. After that, officials hope to bring the vehicles to Clearwater and then Dunedin to see how they operate in other parts of the county.

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

If AVA shifts to Clearwater next, vehicles would operate along Clearwater Beach during the spring tourist season.

“The challenge for us is always when the beach has its highest level of density and demand, and seeing how new technology like this can navigate that,” Clearwater city manager Bill Horne said.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has partnered with Beep to launch a fare-free, electric and autonomous shuttle named AVA, short for Autonomous Vehicle Advantage. AVA will begin serving the public along Bayshore Drive on Wednesday.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has partnered with Beep to launch a fare-free, electric and autonomous shuttle named AVA, short for Autonomous Vehicle Advantage. AVA will begin serving the public along Bayshore Drive on Wednesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The St. Petersburg portion of the pilot costs $200,000, transit planner Jacob Labutka said. It’s paid for with a mix of money and in-kind donations from the transit authority, the state Department of Transportation and the city of St. Petersburg.

While many of the details for Clearwater and Dunedin are in the works, they’re still determining how to pay for those parts of the pilot, Labutka said.

About 250 people rode the driverless shuttle in Tampa during its first two months, according to numbers provided by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. The pilot program launched with one vehicle, but officials are hoping to add a second shuttle in the near future.

Typically, AVA can transport up to 15 passengers standing and seated. But COVID-19 restrictions limit the capacity to six passengers of the same party or four passengers from different parties. Passengers will be asked to sit in a pattern that allows for social distancing and must wear a mask when riding.