Gainesville’s autonomous shuttles are once again something you’ll see quite regularly if you are traveling along Southwest Second Avenue near the University of Florida.
Gainesville’s autonomous shuttle project, which began testing in early January, was one of many autonomous vehicle projects put on hold by the federal government after an accident in Ohio, where a passenger was ejected from her seat during a braking incident.
After the incident, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration banned all EasyMile shuttles from operation. This is the same company that manufactures the Gainesville shuttles, although they are operated by a company called Transdev.
Gainesville city spokesperson Rossana Passaniti wrote in an email that the autonomous shuttle project resumed testing in late August. In late September, the two autonomous shuttles began transporting passengers, but capacity is limited under social distancing protocols.
The shuttles, which normally carry 11 passengers plus the attendant, can now carry three passengers plus the attendant, she said. At this point, the attendant remains on the bus to monitor operations.
Rodney McMillan operates one of the shuttles for Transdev. He said some key changes were implemented within the EasyMile shuttles during the testing hiatus, including the addition of a seat belt and a non-slip pad on each seat.
“That accident wasn’t one of our vehicles. That was another company that had that vehicle. So far, we’ve been fortunate not to have any mishaps.”
The two buses currently run at about 8.6 mph from the Downtown Parking Garage, along Southwest Second Avenue, to the 12th Street roundabout. The route is in operation from Monday through Friday, with one starting at 8 a.m. and the other an hour later.
Gainesville city commissioners discussed the autonomous vehicle project in a Digital Access Committee meeting Oct. 12.
Commissioner Harvey Ward said while eating lunch at the street eatery area on Southwest First Avenue, he noticed people were intrigued every time the vehicle drove by.
“It shows up like clockwork and like clockwork people flock over to it to find out what’s going on. Inevitably, some of those people take a ride just to take a ride because they are interested,” he said.
Commissioner David Arreola mentioned that he still had the T-shirt from launch day earlier this year.
“I still have my T-shirt saying that I was there when we launched the autonomous shuttle back at the beginning of the year when we had so much hope.”
Ward quipped: “Yes, it feels like decades ago, doesn’t it?”
The next step to expand the route to the University of Florida campus is to install sensors that would operate with the traffic lights near campus, McMillan said.
McMillan also said there are two additional shuttles waiting approval by the federal government to operate on the route.
Once approved, three shuttles, with the fourth as a backup, will be roaming along Southwest Second Avenue as Gainesville moves forward into a future with self-driving vehicles.