DUNEDIN — Sometime during next spring break, visitors to downtown Dunedin may be surprised to see a driverless mini-bus ambling along Main Street.
“We’re very fortunate that PSTA selected both Dunedin and Clearwater to do a three-month trial or demo of an autonomous vehicle. We’re very excited about it. It’s a pretty sophisticated machine,” Bob Ironsmith, housing and economic development director, told city commissioners, seated as the Community Redevelopment Agency.
Ironsmith added officials working on the project were “very impressed with Dunedin, because pedestrian foot traffic is much higher here than in Clearwater. They are pretty fired up to see how this will work in Dunedin.”
Jacob Labutka, AICP Project Planner at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, told commissioners PSTA will be gathering data as part of a countywide autonomous vehicle program.
“The plan is to test the autonomous vehicle in several different environments and get meaningful data,” he said.
“The top speed of the autonomous vehicle is 25 mph, so you’re certainly not going to launch this on U.S. 19 or anything like that, which might be a little chaotic.”
Depending on acquisition of funding from a U.S. Department of Transportation Automated Driving System Demonstration Grant, PSTA plans to conduct its first three-month trial run this fall in downtown St. Petersburg. The mini-bus will run along Bayshore Boulevard, between the Vinoy Hotel and Dalí Museum.
Dunedin may get the next trail run with the driverless, electric mini-bus traversing Main Street from Mease Hospital to the City Marina, because Clearwater wants to avoid the period between spring break, Labutka said.
Clearwater’s trial run would see the autonomous vehicle along the Mandalay Avenue corridor. “Clearwater doesn’t want it to be operating during spring break, because it can be fun, but a little chaotic out there,” Labutka said.
“We’ll take spring break,” Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said.
While the 15-passenger mini-bus operates at speeds from 12 to 25 mph, Dunedin’s driverless shuttle may travel a bit slower, considering the environment, Labutka explained.
“Ambassadors,” serving as attendants, will be aboard the 15.6-foot-long bus that can operate about nine hours on an electric charge.
In recalling problems that Boeing has had with their automated aircraft pilot systems, Commissioner Maureen Freaney asked, “Do they do a lot of testing to make sure there is no software glitch?”
Labutka said the vendor conducts many software checks, and there has been no reported problems in areas where the buses have been used.
“It has a manual override,” he said, “so if there was a giant truck or something completely blocking the roadway, there is a joystick that can be used to manually go around any obstacles.”
Commissioner Heather Gracy followed up on the safety aspect asking; “Does auto pilot have a brake?”
“I believe it does, yes it does,” Lubutka said.
The idea is to see how this technology integrates with surroundings, he said.
“We have a lot of activity on Douglas, as well, why was that route not chosen?” Commissioner Jeff Gow asked.
Ironsmith said city officials considered that route, but there would be no way for it to turn.
“It would have to go all the way up to Skinner and down Highland; the headway was not going to work.”
Bujalski said if the bus is not able to turn on Douglas, “maybe raised crosswalks isn’t something we should be doing in that area.”
Raised crosswalks are planned as part of the new Douglas Avenue and Skinner Boulevard roadway design.
She said she is pointing that out, “because if we are going down this road, we should do it strategically.”
The mayor noted the city will be looking for ways to provide shuttles that transport visitors from distant parking areas, such as at Mease Hospital and The Gateway, during events and festivals downtown.
Ironsmith said other methods of transportation would likely be used to ferry visitors during special events. “We don’t think this is the best vehicle for park-n-ride,” he said.
Labutka noted autonomous vehicles can be programmed to change routes, if the city wanted to consider them in the future.
The mayor also voiced concern about problems the self-driving bus may have maneuvering at the Edgewater Drive-Alt. U.S. 19 curve from the City Marina to Main Street.
Labutka said that portion of the route will be studied further.
Ironsmith said the city will have to market the availability of the bus; the “transpertainment,” as it is referred to by PSTA project staff, would be an attractive amenity to offer visitors.
“It will create a vibrant, cultural experience that impacts the lives of our community and visitors,” Ironsmith said.
Commissioner Deborah Kynes said, “I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s really fascinating. I love it;
Can I get one of my own?” she quipped.
Gracy said she is excited about the bus.
“It shows our residents we are planning for the future,” she said.
Commissioners unanimously endorsed the pilot program at their May 16 CRA meeting.
Ironsmith said commissioners will get another opportunity to weigh in on the autonomous mini-bus project, once PSTA acquires grant funding and local route specifics are designed.