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Orlando Prepares for the Launch of Autonomous Shuttle Program

Last month the City Council signed off on a funding agreement with the region’s bus service to launch the driverless pilot. The $500,000 test is planned to start in late August and run through April.

Rescue personnel get a hands-on tour of the Beep AutoNom Shuttle, at Orlando Fire Department Station 16, in Lake Nona, Wednesday, May 22, 2019. The Beep shuttle will be Central Florida's first autonomous public transit and is expected to begin service later this year. Beep is manufactured by NAVYA, a global autonomous vehicle company based in France. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel)
Joe Burbank/TNS
(TNS) — Later this summer, Orlando plans to launch a fare-free autonomous bus that will circle parts of Parramore, Creative Village and link to Lynx’s downtown bus station.

Last month the City Council signed off on a funding agreement with the region’s bus service to launch the driverless pilot. The $500,000 test is planned to start in late August and run through April. The bus route is along Garland Avenue, Amelia Street, Terry Avenue and Livingston Street on what is LYMMO’s normal Orange Route.

The agreement calls for Lake-Nona-based Beep to provide two autonomous buses, each holding at least eight riders. The buses will run daily during off-peak hours, in addition to traditional buses on the route.

“The exciting opportunity is observing how it works … and then to expand throughout the city,” said Tanya Wilder, Orlando’s transportation director.

Like LYMMO, downtown’s Bus Rapid Transit system, the autonomous bus will mostly stay in dedicated lanes and use traffic signals for buses. For a sliver of its route, it will interact with other vehicles in regular lanes.

Beep first came to the city in 2019 when it launched a network of autonomous shuttles called Move Nona, and also constructed its headquarters there. The company runs a network of eight shuttles across five routes in Lake Nona, which it says is the largest and longest autonomous network at one location in North America.

It also has vehicles in Jacksonville, Tradition in Port St. Lucie, ZooMiami and at Yellowstone National Park.

The city of Altamonte Springs plans to have autonomous shuttle buses running along the busy State Road 436 corridor within a year, according to officials. The buses will connect passengers with the SunRail station, AdventHealth Altamonte Springs hospital, the Altamonte Mall and Cranes Roost Park.

Officials said the project is part of an effort by the Seminole County city, with a population of just over 46,000, to increase ways for residents to get around without having to use their cars.

The downtown Orlando route will be serviced by two buses, one that holds eight passengers and one that holds 10, Wilder said.

The electric vehicles are slow-moving – one goes about 12 mph, and the other about 18 mph – but are an opportunity to showcase Orlando as “cutting edge” to college students at the Creative Village campus, younger students attending the Academic Center for Excellence in Parramore, as well as other commuters.

“This is a big opportunity for people to understand how Orlando is cutting edge. … The integration of bringing these vehicles to the urban core is super exciting,” she said. “For people to have the opportunity to ride this as school starts is pretty cool.”

The route passes by the ACE school just west of Creative Village, the downtown UCF and Valencia campuses and Luminary Green, as well as Lynx Central Station.

City officials are preparing traffic signal timing to accommodate the buses and planning a brand for the autonomous shuttles. The city also expects to look for grant funding to expand autonomous buses into other neighborhoods, such as Ivanhoe Village, SODO or elsewhere.

Plans call for the buses to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. each day. On Monday through Friday, two buses are planned to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., while the remaining times will have one bus.

Before voting on the agreement, Commissioner Jim Gray, who represents the Lake Nona area, said he was excited to see Beep expand in the city, and said the company had succeeded in his district.

“Beep has been a great addition to the Lake Nona area,” he said. “If you’ve never ridden in an autonomous vehicle: try it. Because the first time it takes off and you look up and nobody’s driving, it’s kind of a weird feeling.”

Martin Comas of the Sentinel staff contributed.

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