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Winter Haven testing self-driving shuttle that could help its downtown flourish

The high-tech shuttles could potentially offer a convenient hop-on/hop-off service between downtown shops, bars, restaurants, homes, and hotels
Self-driving shuttle
Posted at 7:20 AM, Apr 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-01 07:20:03-04

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — The intoxicating aroma of what’s brewing at Haven Coffee Roasters in Downtown Winter Haven hits you immediately as you walk through the door.

Co-owner Jon Lane and his baristas prepare fresh coffee drinks and teas using a lot of attention to detail and ever-growing creativity.

Some of the popular menu items are a blueberry crumble latte, the Blue Haven iced tea, tea infused with lavender, and the signature Haven Latte, a latte flavored with a house-made roasted marshmallow syrup.

“I got laid off during COVID, and I knew what coffee was, and I knew what good coffee was, and I said, ‘Well, let’s go,’” said Lane. “And I joke around. I tell people my wife didn’t say no.”

But outside these walls of his shop on 3rd St. there’s a feeling brewing too: an exciting feeling of transformation in a city trying to wake up its downtown.

Lane’s business, just a year old, is already seeing new faces as the city grows rapidly.

And Thursday, a new piece of technology that could become pivotal to the city’s recipe for growth and downtown revitalization was being tested right across the street from Lane’s shop.

There, under the Winter Haven downtown water tower, Pierra LeFevre tested an autonomous transit system called COAST P-1.

Pierra LeFevre

Think of it as a 21st-century trolley, a transit system without a driver, a technological marvel, A battery-powered hop-on/hop-off shuttle that Lefevre, one of its masterminds, says uses an array of technology to get passengers around safely.

“From the market to a parking lot,” he said. “To give the city back to people, not to cars.”

According to Lefevre, the shuttles can be programmed with a myriad of drop-off and pick-up locations that passengers can easily select using an app or a tablet inside the carriage. The vehicles can hold up a 16 hour charge and use a multitude of cameras and Lidar lasers to avoid obstacles like cars and pedestrians.

Rick Baker, the former mayor of St. Petersburg, has partnered with the City of Winter Haven, COAST, and developer Six/Ten, LLC to help coordinate the study.

“The objective that I’m now a part of is to make Winter Haven the coolest small-city downtown in Florida,” he said.

In Winter Haven, it’s an idea still heating up and one the city is still studying. Monday, commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding with COAST to begin studying the transit system and the feasibility of bringing it to Downtown Winter Haven full time.

“It’s definitely a work in progress,” said Katrina Hill, the city’s Director of Public Affair and Communication. “This is baby step number one.”

self-driving shuttle

Back at Lane’s coffee shop, he likes what he sees.

“I mean, that’s where we are. You know, we are children of technology,” he said. “On a day we could go get some lunch downtown, I’d hop on and go grab some lunch downtown.”

It’s a shot of high-tech espresso for a downtown already buzzing with energy and potential.

Eric Labbe, the city’s Director of Economic Opportunity and Community Investment, thinks it could be a key ingredient in bringing more economic opportunities and investment to Winter Haven.

“I think the word that comes to mind is really just community service,” Labbe said. “I see a downtown area where people really live and work and are entertained and never have to get in their car.”

So far, COAST has demonstrated the high-tech vehicles in locations across the globe. Closer to home, some were tested at both the University of South Florida and University of Central Florida.

As for Winter Haven, the city says you can see — even try out — their test model Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. near the downtown water tower.