TAMPA, Fla. - A shuttle without a human driver is going to be riding around the streets of downtown Tampa fairly soon.
It will be the first of its kind in the entire country to be driving daily among regular traffic.
"A few other places have put autonomous service out for a week or two. But no where else in the country do you have constantly running AV [autonomous vehicle] shuttles for public transit," says Katherine Eagen, the CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) Authority.
Eagen says HART's future driverless shuttle is as much an experiment as it is a useful way to help commuters.
"This gives us a chance to make sure we know how to integrate it our city is ready, that our pedestrians are ready," says Eagen to ABC Action News.
HART is starting small and carefully. The new shuttle's route will only be about 1 mile in length, connecting the popular N. Marion Street Bus Center to the other side of downtown Tampa. By staying on Marion Street, and limiting hours to daytime, the autonomous shuttle will have only limited interactions with other drivers, since Marion Street is limited to other HART busses during daytime hours.
But one day these shuttles will expand their routes.
"The vehicle is smart enough to recognize a rail crossing. It is smart enough to stop and examine a four way stop intersection," says Eagen. "This is a quantum leap in technology."
Bus ridership in Tampa is generally pretty low compared to other major cities.
Eagen says that's not a reason not to invest in new technologies.
"It's not that transit is not attractive it's that an underfunded bus system has a hard time being competitive," says Eagen. "That's just the reality of it."
Florida's Department of Transportation is paying for the shuttle which is designed by the Canadien company Stantec which has an office in Tampa. The shuttle is a pilot program that is currently funded for 1 year, but Eagen hopes to see it funded for several years to come.
The new shuttle is being unveiled next week at an AV technology conference in Tampa.
HART hopes to have it up and running in time for Gasparilla weekend early next year, the same weekend as the NHL All Star Game at Amalie Arena.