Clearwater to test-drive autonomous vehicle

PSTA’s autonomous vehicle pilot program will be arriving in Clearwater Beach in mid-December, when riders can test out the driverless vehicle on Gulfview Boulevard.

CLEARWATER — The next stop for PSTA’s autonomous vehicle will be Clearwater Beach.

Starting in mid-December, the pilot program that gives riders a short demonstration of a driverless vehicle will be traveling in a loop on Gulfview Boulevard starting in the vicinity of Pier 60 and ending on Parkway Drive.

The City Council on Nov. 4 approved an agreement with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to deploy two of the AVs in Clearwater Beach south of the roundabout for three months.

This is the third stop for Autonomous Vehicle Advantage, or AVA, in Pinellas County. Demonstrations first kicked off one year ago along Bayshore Drive in St. Petersburg and later moved to Main Street in Dunedin.

According to Jacob Labutka, a PSTA senior planner, the vehicles will operate from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and each one can fit up to six riders for the free trip.

“The shuttle in autonomous mode can go up to about 15 mph, but tends on average to travel between 10 to 12 mph, but maybe even less depending on what the traffic conditions are like,” he said Nov. 1 during a council work session.

Labutka said Clearwater will be seeing a newer version of the vehicles that also have an ADA ramp built into them.

There is no cost to the city, but the demonstration costs $180,000, which is split between PSTA and federal funding.

City staff will have to ensure the roadway is free of potholes. PSTA also will coordinate with the city on installing temporary “Autonomous Vehicle testing” caution signs on existing speed limit signposts.

The vehicles are autonomous, but they do still have someone on board who can take control if problems arise.

Of course, that doesn’t mean accidents can’t happen.

In June, the program had to be temporarily suspended in Dunedin when one of the vehicles hit a 79-year-old woman at Main Street and Broadway. The woman’s injuries were not life threatening, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

According to PSTA, AVA was being driven by an onboard operator at the time, and the accident was a result of human error.

“From now on, more training will be given to the ‘co-pilots’ to ensure safety of passengers inside the shuttle as well as pedestrians outside the vehicle,” PSTA spokeswoman told Tampa Bay Newspapers.