Miami-Dade County

FIU may get driverless shuttle in state test of new tech

An artist’s rendering of the kind of driverless shuttle that could be plying the FIU campus if Florida and Miami-Dade County proceed with a test of an autonomous vehicle there. The manufacturer is Local Motors of Phoenix.
An artist’s rendering of the kind of driverless shuttle that could be plying the FIU campus if Florida and Miami-Dade County proceed with a test of an autonomous vehicle there. The manufacturer is Local Motors of Phoenix.

A driverless shuttle may be coming to Florida International University in a state program that would give the school a sneak peek at how autonomous vehicles could revolutionize modern transportation.

The 12-person mini-bus would navigate FIU like a regular vehicle, but with a computer at the helm instead of a person, said Alice Bravo, Miami-Dade County’s transportation chief. She’s helping state officials line up FIU as a test course for the passenger vehicle, and is also organizing a separate state test of autonomous freight vehicles elsewhere in Miami-Dade.

“Right now, we’re talking,” Bravo said. She did not provide details about how the test might unfold, and FIU was similarly mum about the specifics. School spokesman Maydel Santana said that talks with the county have produced “nothing remotely solid” and that more coordination is needed before a test program could launch on one or both of FIU’s primary campuses.

“But we are always interested in new technology to address transportation challenges,” Santana wrote.

The hush-hush vibe surrounding the potential driverless shuttle at FIU promises to add to the intrigue of a technology that increasingly is getting the attention of local and national policy makers. Washington has already legalized self-driving cars for testing purposes, and Google already has a fleet of computerized cars that have driven a combined 1 million miles and are so self-sufficient they lack steering wheels.

Bravo revealed the existence of the potential FIU shuttle test during a meeting of Miami-Dade’s Transportation committee, when county commissioners gave preliminary approval to a resolution directing her department to include autonomous vehicles in local transportation planning. Mayor Carlos Gimenez last year flew to California to participate in a conference on driverless cars. A Tampa expressway is one of 10 stretches of road across the country approved for testing driverless cars, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott took a ride in an autonomous Audi there in early 2014.

Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry believes it has the only driverless vehicle in the country that’s open to the public on a daily basis. Launched last summer, the open-air, nine-passenger car rolls along at under 5 mph, about the pace of a slow golf cart. It only spares visitors the few hundred steps that separate the museum’s front entrance from its butterfly garden and parking lot, but museum administrators say the automated shuttle bus has proven a big hit — especially when it manages not to hit a passerby who walks in front of it.

“Nobody was jolted inside, but it stops quite promptly,” said Grayson Kamm, the museum’s new public relations director, as he described his first time watching the shuttle encounter a pedestrian. “It stops like you’d want it to do.”

A museum docent serves as operator, pushing the button to start the vehicle and narrating the tour for visitors. When deployed inside the museum itself, the vehicle is programmed to do five of the six tests required for obtaining a Florida driver’s license — head-in parking, three-point turns, lane changes and other rudimentary tasks, while skipping the requirement to go from 20 mph to a safe stop.

Johnny Scotello, the museum’s director of exhibits, said that about 50,000 passengers have taken rides on the vehicle “without incident or injury.” One revelation since the vehicle’s launch in June: “Autonomous” is not a very appealing term.

“The general public tends not to like it,” Scotello said. “For one thing, it’s hard to say.” Also, “it’s a little creepier” than “driverless,” which Scotello said appears to be the most inviting way to describe the vehicle.

He said the same kind of shuttle has been used at the West Point military academy, one of several driverless-vehicle experiments that have popped up on academic campuses across the country. For FIU, an air-conditioned mini bus would come from a Phoenix-based company called Local Motors. Adam Kress, director of public relations, said the company is still designing the vehicle and expects to have one produced by the summer. The plan is for 12 seats, though that could change.

“In terms of our involvement with Miami-Dade County, we’ve been in discussions and are excited about the possibilities,” Kress wrote Friday. “Nothing is inked yet, but we’re hopeful we’ll get everything ironed out in the next few months.”

This post was updated to correct the number of passengers the Tampa Museum of Science and Industry says have ridden its driverless shuttle.