Clearwater Beach backs federal program for driverless buses

The pilot program would test autonomous, 12-passenger vehicles on a 1-mile stretch of Mandalay Avenue.

Thousands of tourists flock to Clearwater Beach on a daily basis, causing massive traffic jams on the barrier island. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]
Thousands of tourists flock to Clearwater Beach on a daily basis, causing massive traffic jams on the barrier island. [Jim Damaske | Florida Beach Insider photo]

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

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

The City Council agreed during a recent work session to write a letter of support for the demonstration of a 12-passenger, self-driving vehicle along Mandalay. 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.

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

“We want to be part of this; it will be something new and exciting for the city of Clearwater,” Hartman said.

The proposed one-mile test route would run a loop from the Pier 60 area north on Mandalay to Juanita Way, 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.

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This driverless bus, designed by Navya and tested in Las Vegas and other cities, could be the vehicle of choice for a test of autonomous buses along Clearwater Beach this fall. There will be a driver on hand for tough situations. [Navya photo]

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 council members. 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.

“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.

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Autonomous vehicles could be a common sight in Pinellas County one day.

“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, no one on the bus or in the truck was injured. Las Vegas Metro Police cited the delivery truck driver, and said 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.”

This article was originally published by Tampa Bay Newspapers on April 15, 2019.

John Guerra is a correspondent for Tampa Bay Newspapers.