After several delays, Gainesville officials are hopeful that they will be able to launch an autonomous shuttle service in the coming months that will be the first of its kind in the nation.
Last year, the city approved a contract with Transdev Services that would fund $2.7 million toward a three-year pilot program for four electric, self-driving shuttles. The project is being entirely funded by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Those plans, however, have been delayed at least twice due to permits needed to meet federal standards while three of the shuttles have been held up in customs for several months.
Assistant City Manager Dan Hoffman said Friday that the shuttles have been released from customs and that the city is expecting to soon receive operational permits from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We’ve been told that very, very soon they'll be issuing waivers,” he said. “We should have some movement very soon.”
The electric vehicles can hold up to 12 people at a time and would take riders through downtown Gainesville at speeds of about 15 mph. Each shuttle is equipped with safety features, monitors, phone chargers and an emergency stop button if needed. The vehicles have sensors that will stop the vehicle if a bike, car or person gets too close.
What they don't have are steering wheels or pedals to stop and go.
“It probably has a dozen other things that don't conform to normal vehicle standards,” Hoffman said. “Because it's not a normal vehicle, it has to go through that waiver process. This is not an uncommon process.”
Hoffman said that the three remaining shuttles that the city has been eagerly anticipating were sent to Babcock Ranch, a newly founded town in southwest Florida, for additional testing by the shuttles’ operators, Transdev.
Babcock Ranch is currently testing its own similar self-driving shuttle, though it is operating on private roads. Gainesville’s shuttles will be one of the first in the country to run a scheduled route in mixed traffic.
“No one has an operating waiver,” Hoffman said. “The reason why any of these vehicles have been able to do anything they're doing around the country is because they're on testing waivers.”
Once the city receives its fleet of shuttles and waivers, it may have to wait an additional 45 days before launching the service to the public.
The preliminary route is set to take people from the Southwest Third Street parking garage to Innovation Square near Southwest Second Avenue. The route will later be expanded from Depot Park to the University of Florida.