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What’s it like to ride Dunedin’s driverless shuttle? Futuristic and fun.
The pilot program is in town for three months, moving people around via artificial intelligence.
Kelly O'Connell and Josh Gillin wait to board the AVA driverless shuttle in Dunedin on Sunday. The shuttle is in town on a three-month pilot program.
Kelly O'Connell and Josh Gillin wait to board the AVA driverless shuttle in Dunedin on Sunday. The shuttle is in town on a three-month pilot program. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published May 25

DUNEDIN — You ever stop, scrunch your nose, and think: We live in the future?

We aren’t teleporting in bad face paint like the original Star Trek, but things aren’t that far off. We walk around with pocket computers and connect across the world. Don’t get me started on cryptocurrency. I will say, “Look, a fire,” then run away to avoid explaining it.

Today, though, let’s focus on driverless cars. Specifically, the AVA Shuttle, visiting Dunedin for three months. I hopped on Sunday, en route to see the Tampa Bay Rays play (dominate) the Toronto Blue Jays.

It was a short walk to TD Ballpark from downtown. But it was shorter to step onto this peach jelly bean and pretend to be Marty McFly. Also, it was free. Also, it was air-conditioned. Also, it was neato?

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is partnering with Beep, a private company from Orlando, to bring us AVA, or Autonomous Vehicle Advantage. Did you get that? Beep-boop-beep, the future! Driverless shuttle programs launched in Tampa and St. Petersburg last fall. The goal is to assess how the shuttles might become part of Tampa Bay’s transportation landscape.

My husband and I sidled up next to Kelly O’Connell, who had gone to church on her golf cart and decided to see what the robot car was about. She also told us about a meatball sandwich deal at the VFW. Thanks, Kelly!

The cutest Miami Vice pod pulled up to the lot across from Casa Tina on Main Street. O’Connell asked to take it round trip, just for fun. “Of course,” said our friendly copilot, Chris Rivera. We boarded with two additional baseball fans. That made five, the limit during COVID times. Normally, it can hold up to 15 sitting and standing.

The shuttle is fully electric and can ride for nine hours on a charge from a power plant. It’s disability compliant. It uses sensors and GPS to spot and move around obstacles. How? Look, a fire!

Rivera made sure everyone was masked, smoothing the edges of the ride with a joystick as AVA learned the area.

Kelly O'Connell rides the driverless shuttle while attendant Chris Rivera holds on.
Kelly O'Connell rides the driverless shuttle while attendant Chris Rivera holds on. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

A-ha. You, eagle-eyed reader, ask: What’s the difference between a copilot and, you know, a driver?

Well, people being what they are, a vehicle like this could never be unattended. We’d be writing an investigative series about autonomous shuttles surfacing in ponds.

Moreover, robotics are elaborate, and driverless tech has been rife with cost and complications. The New York Times reported Monday that the industry has taken longer than predicted to get up to speed. Self-driving cars from Uber and Tesla have had fatal accidents, and some companies have sold their autonomous units to firms with more money and time for research.

Related: Driverless shuttles spark more interest in St. Petersburg than Tampa

Having a human on board a driverless shuttle is a good thing. But the AVA does work. We witnessed it.

As we approached at a slow clip, a crush of people hung out close to Douglas Avenue, selling parking and scalping tickets. Then, a guy wandered into the street hawking beads, oblivious to the adorable coral pod bearing down on him.

The thing stopped! It saw something with its robot eyes and did not flatten the man! It was like Captain Kirk coolly threatening to destroy the USS Enterprise, knowing it would never happen.

This was a moment for Rivera to point out the tech, and for everyone on board to nod aggressively. Surely there are kinks, but it’s exciting to see programs like this. It could alleviate traffic in busy areas, and provide access where buses and trolleys don’t reach. Exploring innovative options is better than packing more gas-guzzlers onto fatter highways.

We hopped off the salmon spore to go to the game, and it left. O’Connell waved at us from the back window, boldly going where no pod has... you get it.

Ride it

AVA will stop along Main Street, Broadway Avenue, Scotland Street, Douglas Avenue, Wood Street and Highland Avenue in Dunedin through August, 10 a.m to 10 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Masks required, capacity limited. Find a map at psta.net/programs/ava.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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