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Florida City Launches Autonomous Public Shuttle Pilot

Gainesville, Fla., has kicked off a three-year project allowing public access to free autonomous shuttles.

Three driverless shuttles are planned to take to the streets of Gainesville, Fla., in the coming months for a three-year pilot project known endearingly as GAToRS.
The undertaking, a joint effort by the city, University of Florida and the Florida Department of Transportation, is part of Gainesville’s smart city efforts, said Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman.
“This will be for use with the general public and we see it as a real-world pilot,” he said.
The battery-electric powered buses will be supplied by EasyMile, a French company. They move at slow speeds, topping out at about 25 miles per hour. However, Hoffman does not anticipate them traveling that fast in the “planned environment.”
The city’s primary aim with GAToRS is introducing the technology to the public and perfecting it. No fares will be charged, and the small 12-passenger buses will travel a set route from downtown to the University of Florida campus, arriving at stops every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 20 minutes during other times.
The AV shuttle pilot follows others around the country as developers and transit officials work to develop the technology for more widespread applications.
“Deployments will progress depending on the requirements of each state,” said Randy Iwasaki, executive director of the Contra Costa Transportation Authority in Walnut Creek, Calif., where EasyMile has been involved with testing its shuttles within the 600-acre Bishop Ranch business park. “We are still working with (the California) DMV. Some of the requirements are on point such as testing plans, emergency response plans which we have sent to the DMV.”
Many cities, particularly outlying suburban areas, have “first-mile, last-mile” issues to deal with, said Iwasaki, referring to the struggle of getting transit users from their home to a transit stop in as hassle-free an effort as possible.
“The technology in the past has not been able to adequately address the problem. We thought, and still think, we found the right technology,” he added.
Small shuttles like these could help to fill new niches of transit, as an economical answer to serving short, quick trips, said Thomas Bamonte, senior program manager for the automated vehicles department within the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), which helps to guide funding and public policy along a range of transportation initiatives in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metropolitan area.
“There have been multiple new deployments of low-speed automated vehicles (LSAV),” said Bamonte last week, adding new providers are coming on the scene. “By now, there are at least a dozen such manufacturers.”
“Why? Roughly one-third of our trips are two miles or shorter,” he offered. “This transportation segment is something that LSAVs might serve in relatively dense areas, ranging from entertainment districts to downtowns.”

A driverless shuttle test project in Las Vegas recently grabbed headlines last month when it was involved in a minor accident. The shuttles for that program are produced by Navya. The pilot is set to run for one year.
Other states are picking up on the autonomous shuttle movement. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper declared Dec. 4 as “Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Day” following the successful rollout of a connected vehicle partnership initiative between Panasonic and the Colorado Department of Transportation. EasyMile just opened its North American headquarters in the Panasonic building in Denver.
“Colorado’s reputation as a hub for advanced technologies takes a significant step forward today with Easy Mile’s opening of their North American headquarters and aligning with the state’s partner Panasonic,” said Hickenlooper, in a statement last week.
In Dallas, transit officials have earmarked $500,000 to support pilot deployments of low-speed automated vehicles in the DFW region, said Bamonte.
“Some of the funds will be directed to Arlington’s next phase of its LSAV test program and the rest to support a second pilot program in the region,” said Bamonte.

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.