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Coming soon to the area around the University of South Florida: new Teslas to ferry people to and from bus stops

Cesar Hernandez, of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, emerges from a Tesla Model X electric vehicle on Tuesday. HART is leasing four Teslas for its HyperLink program in the University Area of Tampa. For a $3 fee, the vehicles will take people to and from bus stops within a three-mile radius. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published Apr. 19, 2017

TAMPA — Starting Monday, people who live and work around the University of South Florida will be able to summon a sleek Tesla to take them to and from a bus stop.

If that doesn't seem futuristic enough, consider this: The electric vehicles are already equipped with self-driving hardware, and transit officials hope the fleet will soon be driverless.

The project is part of HyperLink — the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority's solution to getting people to and from bus stops for $3 a trip so they don't have to walk 45 minutes in the Florida heat or pay for an Uber. HyperLink started in Carrollwood, Brandon and the University Area six months ago, but Monday's unveiling of four Teslas operating around USF is a development HART officials hope will place the transit agency ahead of its peers nationwide.

Hillsborough County is the first place in the country to use Tesla vehicles as a transit solution, HART government relations specialist Cesar Hernandez said.

"It's a win for Tampa and, honestly, for Florida for us to be trying these very novel concepts in disruption in transportation," Hernandez said. "There's always that level of risk with innovation, but it's also an opportunity to show that Tampa is ready to adapt."

Tesla officials did not respond to an interview request.

Starting in the University Area, one of the county's most popular transit areas, made sense, Hernandez said. The number of people who use or are open to transit is growing, as is the number of businesses. And the area is experiencing major redevelopment, which makes it a good place for testing new projects.

Nestor Ortiz of the University Area Community Development Corp. said the area needs "reliable and consistent transportation" so residents can access both jobs and educational opportunities.

"Now they have access to a vehicle that can get them there in a faster time frame," he said.

The initiative is expected to cost about $860,000 for the two years. Transit advocate and former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe helped secure $160,000 so far in private money as part of his job as executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance.

Member businesses, Sharpe said, are supportive of adding more transit options within the University Area — and doing so in a way that is open to automated and driverless technology.

"To be able to be at the front in testing this technology is important to us," Sharpe said.

The four Tesla Model X vehicles are painted in HART's blue and white colors, with stickers highlighting the private business that donated to the program.

Yes, the back doors open in that iconic "falcon wing" style, where they go up and out. The sport utility vehicle model fits up to six passengers, plus the driver. And it is equipped with full self-driving hardware, including eight surround cameras, a dozen ultrasonic sensors and an autopilot function that can adjust speed, automatically change lanes, exit the freeway and self-park.

The electric cars are battery-operated and run for about 250 miles per charge. HART is buying super chargers that can repower a battery in about 30 minutes. Hernandez isn't worried about recharging the vehicles multiple times a day; the HyperLink zone extends only 3 miles around the University Area Transit Center.

The goal is to eventually add other drop points to the list, such as USF or Florida Hospital, Hernandez said. So for $3 each way, a person will be able to order a Tesla or another HyperLink vehicle to take them from their home to work or school. As of now, those trips must either start or end at the University Area Transit Center.

Drivers from TransDev, an international transportation company that contracted with HART for HyperLink, will be the ones picking up passengers, not HART bus drivers. And whenever the state and local policy passes to allow driverless vehicles, those same Model Xs are equipped to run without a driver, Hernandez said.

"As of now, they are going to have an operator in them," Hernandez said. "But there's the possibility that this can go fully driverless."

HART is leasing the four Model Xs from Tesla for about $81,000 a year. (The vehicles would cost about $94,000 each, if the agency were to buy them.) The leases, charging stations and other associated costs are financed through a public-private partnership with several University Area businesses, including Innovation Place, TECO, Nitro, Blind Tiger, Lightning Capital, Diamond View and NTG.

HART expects to spend $350,000 a year to operate HyperLink, including the Tesla initiative. The money will come from HART's general revenue, and the Florida Department of Transportation will reimburse half of that through a grant.

"You have public dollars funding the operations and the program, and you have private dollars coming in and adding this additional element of innovation," Hernandez said.

If the pilot program goes well, HART hopes to add more Teslas to its fleet and potentially run them in other HyperLink areas like Carrollwood or even downtown Tampa. But that's contingent on businesses in those areas being willing to contribute money toward the cost of the vehicles.

It's unclear whether other Tampa Bay transit agencies like the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would be interested in leasing cars with autonomous capabilities. PSTA's HyperLink equivalent is a partnership with Uber and Yellow Cab that allows bus riders to catch a ride to or from designated bus stops. PSTA pays half of that fare, up to $3 a trip.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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