Tampa tests next step in driverless cars

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The future of street safety got a test drive in Tampa Thursday, as the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority demonstrated the next step in its connected vehicle pilot program.

Connected vehicles use sensor technology that connects with other vehicles, roads, traffic lights, and crosswalks. The sensors communicate with one another to alert drivers of possible collisions.

"Safety is the number-one focus of connectivity," said Bob Frey, THEA Director of Planning and Innovations. "It will allow safer [conditions], not just for the people in the vehicles, but for pedestrians and public transportation, everybody using the system."

During its demonstrations Thursday, THEA showed how the technology is being integrated into public transit, such as HART buses and the TECO Line Streetcar. The agency also showed how regular drivers can be alerted to pedestrians in crosswalks.

In each case, the drivers receive a warning from the system, ideally giving them more time to avoid collisions.

"These are the technologies that local agencies can control. We can put them out on the street. We can use them with our fleets and our technologies and get the benefits of connectivity for Tampa," Frey said.

Ruthie Reyes Burckard, HART's Chief Operating Officer, said getting involved was a no-brainer.

"Safety first," she said. "Obviously the collision-avoidance technology is something HART is obviously interested from a perspective of how we serve this community and how this community interacts with us."

THEA first unveiled connected vehicles in 2017, when it showed how the system can be used in cars as they travel along the Crosstown Expressway.

The agency has installed the systems in the vehicles of more than 800 volunteers, with the goal of soon installing up to 1,000. Frey said he hopes to eventually increase that number to 1,600.

Tampa is one of three cities chosen by the U.S. Department of Transportation to participate in the pilot program. The end-goal for developers is to use the data accumulated during the program to help perfect the safety of autonomous vehicles.