The misadventures of GNV’s auto-bug

If Disney made a move about Gainesville’s little robo-bus it would be a comedy of errors in the spirit of “Herbie The Love Bug.”

Scene 1: Gainesville opens its arms to an adorable little autonomous shuttle and says “Welcome: Let’s make some robo-bus history.”

Scene 2: But the black suits in D.C. say “Not so fast, pal! Run your little self-driving robo-bus if you want, but it better have a driver aboard at all times.

Scene 3: Meanwhile, U.S. Customs impounds our little Herbie, um, Robbie for an extended period. Presumably to make sure it’s not part of some Euro-green plot to introduce climate-change radicalism into autoAmerica.

Scene 4: Our plucky bus (two of them actually) finally makes bail.

Just in time for Covid, when practically nobody wants to get on the bus.

Still, what have we learned from our robo-bus shuttle so far? And is there a future for driverless buses here?

“I’ve been asking that myself,” says Mayor Lauren Poe. “Going in the whole idea was to do an experiment. To learn as much as we could and share it with the world.”

And we have learned some things from the shuttle’s continuous laps between the downtown parking garage, west on SW 2nd Avenue to within a block of UF and back.

For instance, UF researchers have determined that the 9 mph shuttle is popular with the pedestrians and cyclists who interact with it. And people who have ridden it are mostly positive about their experience.

But, not surprisingly, motorist who get caught behind the pokey shuttle tend to get impatient and frustrated.

“The speed limit is 25 on 2nd Avenue. When it comes to drivers, you have to be careful that the speed differential is taken care of,” says Manjunatha Pruthvi, manager of the I-Street lab at the University of Florida’s Transportation Institute.

RTS Director Jesus Gomez also has reservations about the transit value of shuttles with limited capacity and extremely slow speeds.

“For operational purposes, we’re not there yet,” he said. “There’s a lot of things we’d need to change for it to become a regular transit option.”

RTS has also found that the shuttles tend to not work very well in heavy rain, and their sensors can be confused by the presence of nearby objects like heavy tree limbs or reflective materials. “Even someone doing landscaping with a mower can stop the vehicle.”

State money for the pilot will run out in August. But Dr. Lily Elefteriadou, director of UF’s Transportation Institute, hopes FDOT will continue funding the shuttles, so they can be tested on another route, Depot Park to 13th Street. “We would like to see it travel different roadways so we can collect data and observe how it operates at different conditions,” she said.

So what might the future hold for autonomous shuttles in Gainesville?

“I don’t see it as being the solution to connecting campus with downtown,” Poe said. “I think probably the biggest potential would be in neighborhoods, taking folks to a main (RTS) line.”

On the other hand, with UF making a major commitment to being more walkable and less car dependent, might not autonomous shuttles be better suited for campus use rather than on city streets?

“We have had discussions about that,” said Elefteriadou. “It would be an interesting way to go with lower speeds and a walkable campus.” For now, however “I hope that we can continue to experiment and learn from our experiences.”

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com. Email him at ron@freegnv.com

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