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Self-driving shuttles could be on the way for downtown St. Pete

Jaymi Butler

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Beep autonomous shuttle
If approved, autonomous shuttles would operate on Bayshore Drive for a three-month trial period beginning in November.

Autonomous vehicles may soon be coming to downtown St. Pete. 

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has been working with the city and Beep, an autonomous vehicle operator based out of Orlando, to bring this new form of transportation to St. Pete residents and visitors. The project, which has been in discussion for about two years, will be funded by PSTA and the Florida Department of Transportation. 

If approved by the City Council, which meets Thursday, two autonomous, fare-free shuttles will hit the streets for a trial period running Nov. 15, 2020-Feb. 15, 2021. They’ll transport up to six riders at a time on a continuous one-mile loop on Bayshore Drive with three stops between 5th Ave. NE and Albert Whitted Park, and PSTA expects the shuttles will arrive at stops every 10 minutes or so. And while they won’t technically have a driver, there will be an attendant on board to take over just in case something goes awry. 

The shuttles have multiple sensors and cameras, and run on an electric motor that can operate for up to seven hours on one charge. They’ll operate in the regular flow of traffic and can go as fast as 15 miles per hour. 

During the three-month trial, PSTA and the city hope to get a sense of whether autonomous vehicles make sense for St. Pete. They’ll be taking surveys to gauge public opinion on whether these shuttles are something people will support on a more permanent basis. A 2019 AAA survey on automated vehicles indicated that 71 percent of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles. However, people reported being more receptive to the idea of low-speed, short distance forms of automated transportation. 

According to Beep, which supports similar initiatives across the state, autonomous vehicles can actually be safer options because they reduce human error, which is the cause of the majority of accidents. Plus, if more people opt to take mass transit, there will ideally be fewer cars on the road, a win for the environment. 

Because of Covid-19, PSTA plans to incorporate safety precautions including frequent cleaning and sanitizing. Both riders and attendants will be required to wear face coverings.  

 

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