HART to roll out driverless buses in downtown Tampa

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HART is going high tech with new vehicles joining its bus fleet at the start of the new year.

A 2-year pilot program will introduce two driverless buses to the streets of downtown Tampa.

HART officials hope the vehicles will help solve some local transportation issues.

"The autonomous vehicles that you're going to see here in Tampa are the first place in the country that a transit agency will be publicly operated, all the time, autonomous vehicles," said Katharine Eagan, CEO of HART.

The autonomous vehicles (AVs) will look like miniature buses. They will seat 12 people at a time, and they will not run on tracks, like the city's trolley system.

"The vehicles are smart enough, for instance, to recognize a railroad crossing," explained Eagan. "We're not in the days that you're programming a vehicle to know once you get to whichever street look for a train, once you get to the street to look for a stop sign. The technology has evolved."

The AVs will have rubber tires and drive on the road amongst other vehicles, connecting the Marion Transit Center to downtown Tampa, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.

"I would try it to see what happens, and then go from there," said bus rider Pattie Ballenger.

Other riders said they'd be hesitant to test the new technology.

"What if something happens, or it goes too fast?" questioned Ashley Pope.

Rider Jacqueline Spivey said, "I wouldn't feel comfortable riding it. Say it breaks down, there's no one on there to help you get to your destination. You're just stuck."

For the first year of the pilot program, HART officials said the vehicles will have an attendant on board to answer questions for riders. They plan to use cameras, both on the AVs and on other HART buses that pass them, to monitor the vehicles from a dispatch center.

Rider Valecia Poole said she doesn't view a driverless vehicle as being any more dangerous than a bus with a driver.

"You can't really say that a human being driving is going to always be perfect," said Poole. "I think it's a great idea."

HART officials plan to have the AVs running for the NHL All-Star Game happening the weekend of January 27, in hopes that the vehicles will allow fans to park downtown and ride the driverless vehicles towards Amalie Arena to alleviate traffic.

They said they have no plans to replace their buses completely with AVs.

"We'll still have bus. They're still our bread and butter, but as this technology is evolving and coming in, we want to take advantage of the opportunity to learn what that technology can do to help us be safer, more efficient or faster," said Eagan.