driverless bus

Sometime during next spring break, visitors to downtown Dunedin may be surprised to see a driverless mini-bus ambling along Main Street.

CLEARWATER — A driverless bus for tourist pickups on Clearwater Beach?

The test of such an autonomous vehicle is in the planning for Mandalay Avenue, according to Richard Hartman, the city’s senior transportation planner.

During its March 4 work session, the City Council agreed to write a letter of support for the demonstration of a 12-passenger, self-driving vehicle along Mandalay Drive. The letter will be included in an application for a federal grant to run the project, Hartman said.

The federal government in December announced $60 million in grants to entities that test the “safe integration of automated driving systems” into the nation’s road systems.

The proposed test — a collaboration between the Pinellas Sun Coast Transit Authority, engineering firm Stantec, and the city, would run between October and January, before winter tourist season kicks in.

“The Federal Highway Administration has authorized these demonstration projects around the country,” Hartman told the Beacon. “We want to be part of this; it will be something new and exciting for the city of Clearwater.”

The proposed one-mile test route would run north on Mandalay Avenue to Juanita Way and loop back as the vehicle picked up passengers, Hartman told the council. A technologist monitoring the onboard systems can grab the wheel to go around stopped delivery vehicles and avoid other mishaps.

Onboard cameras will constantly record surrounding traffic and all incidents.

Hartman said he had discussed the project with the Clearwater police and fire departments and suggested a lot adjacent to Fire Station 46 at 534 Mandalay Ave. could serve as a staging area for the vehicle, which resembles a small, square bus.

The location provides electricity to recharge the vehicle at night and access to wireless Internet, which lets researchers download data collected by the vehicle’s systems during the day, Hartman said.

WiFi is vital to the driverless vehicle trials on public roadways. Two competing systems are being tested in the country: One would have driverless vehicles depending on sensors along the route to guide them; the other system constantly downloads data into the vehicle to avoid collisions and make such decisions as where to turn and where to stop.

There are limits to the vehicle’s abilities, however.

It runs about 12 mph, and to ensure it runs all day without a recharge, the route it follows can’t be longer than a mile, Hartman told councilmembers. It also can’t as yet negotiate the traffic circle on Clearwater Beach.

“It cannot make that little turn to Poinsettia Avenue and around the roundabout, so we’re looking to see about cutting through a city lot,” Hartman said.

According to Hartman, St. Petersburg had considered a similar test of autonomous vehicles on a route between University of South Florida and the Vinoy Waterfront but had delayed it.

“We want to take advantage of this opportunity to test this out in an area where we have a lot of people,” he told the council.

Autonomous vehicles could be common site in Pinellas County one day. The St. Petersburg, Clearwater, and a future Dunedin test will help make driverless vehicles a reality, Hartman said.

“PSTA is seeking to build on that grant to enhance application of this new technology on a countywide footprint,” he said.

The buses can still get in scrapes. That’s what happened on the first day the Navya bus was tested in Las Vegas, according to city officials.

According to a blog post written by Las Vegas city officials, a delivery truck driven by a human driver backed into the shuttle just a few hours after a city ceremony launching the test in November 2017.

According to extensive media reporting on the incident by Fortune Magazine, Reuters, the Associated Press and other news outlets, no one on the bus or in the truck was injured. Las Vegas Metro Police cited the delivery truck driver, and that the French-built, self-driving vehicle was not at fault. City officials wrote that the “shuttle did what it was supposed to do, in that its sensors registered the truck and the shuttle stopped to avoid the accident.”