“This thing can stop on a dime,” says safety operator Michelle Richter as the autonomous bus slows for a stop at The Continuum apartment building on SW 2nd Avenue in Gainesville.
Every Monday morning at 9 a.m., two Easy Mile shuttle buses are towed over to the downtown southwest parking garage and then put into service until 5 p.m. as “last mile” ride options.
The idea, Richter says, is that in commuter areas where buses or trains arrive at a central location, people will hop on a shuttle to make it to the final destination such as UF campus.
The Florida Department of Transportation is sponsoring the two buses, which can hold six seated and six standing passengers, travel all day on a battery charge, and move at 9.6 mile per hour. As with all mass transit, face masks are required to be worn on the vehicles.
While the United States still prohibits driverless vehicles, Richter said she rarely has to intervene with the autonomous vehicle as it makes its way on its projected path using sensors to bounce off lights positioned on buildings and traffic signals along its pathway.
When the vehicle reaches a roundabout, it slows and Richter then gives it permission to proceed.
“I’m verifying that, yes, the intersection is clear,” she says.
Richter has a bright yellow remote at her waist that is attached on a strap around her neck. At any point she can take over steering, if the need arises.
In February 2020, the buses made their debut and are now a part of a research and testing phase that involves UF, which is conducting surveys of passengers on their experience.
“We are in demonstration and research,” says Richter, who is impressed with the anti-collision algorithm that makes the 13-foot-long, 10-foot high and 6.5-foot-wide shuttle safe to ride.
“We will pull into one of the stops so cars can pass,” she says. “And it’s going to find its way to the route.”
When the vehicle drives itself back onto the programmed path, the sound of a San Francisco trolley bell warns riders that it’s on the move.
Richter is on the shuttle parked across from the southwest garage waiting for passengers to hop on, then it makes a stop along the way at College Manor, The Continuum and all the way to 4th Avenue just before the 13th Street intersection at UF.
“People can hop on and go all the way to the college,” she says.
The Easy Mile vehicles are deployed from Denver and are now used in more than 300 locations globally. Gainesville is the only city currently using them in Florida.
Richter says the latest upgrade on the vehicle and additional stops on the route are part of Phase II testing and research which started on June 2.
The upgrades allow the autonomous vehicle to communicate with traffic lights and stop or go accordingly.
“The anti-collision software maintains a set distance between us and the car,” says Richter. “If a pedestrian crosses the street, the safety sensors will slow the vehicle down until the pedestrian is out of the sensory zone.”
Richter says as time goes on the technology will connect more and more people.
“When cars were invented, we didn’t have roads,” she says. “It took another 40 to 50 years for that.”
Once more light sensors are installed on traffic lights and buildings, the routes can be expanded throughout town and on campus.
“We have the vehicle, now we need the infrastructure,” Richter said. “Communicators are the next technology.”