Osceola considers pilot study for autonomous shuttles on W192 corridor

Osceola County and MetroPlan Orlando are considering introducing autonomous shuttles as a transit solution for the congested W192 tourist corridor.

The 17-mile corridor had been targeted for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) expansion, and MetroPlan has allocated $1.3 million to start the preliminary design and cost estimates for the system. 

Now county leaders are weighing a plan to use autonomous shuttles instead of standard buses.

"If we're going to make a capital investment, why not invest in the technology of the future?" Commissioner Viviana Janer told GrowthSpotter on Thursday. "It's becoming more common. It's not some pie in the sky. Las Vegas is doing it. It's being done in Japan and Europe, too."

She said the county would need to conduct a pilot study on a small stretch of W192 before committing to expand the system. 

"We have not voted as a board to do anything yet," Janer said. "We're still in research mode."

Las Vegas introduced the nation's first autonomous shuttle to drive on public streets this week following a trial run back in January. The free shuttles carry up to 11 passengers on a half-mile loop in the city's downtown entertainment district.

Within hours of the launch, one of the shuttles was involved in a minor accident when a delivery truck backed into it. The driver of the truck was cited for illegal backing. 

Tawny Olore, Osceola County's director of transportation and transit, told GrowthSpotter that driverless vehicles have greater chance of success and public acceptance when they have dedicated lanes. 

That's why Tampa is introducing autonomous shuttles on the city's downtown transit corridor this month. And Jacksonville Transit Authority plans to replace its aging People Mover with driverless vehicles on elevated Skyway right-of-way.

"We're not the only ones putting our toe in the water," Olore said.

MetroPlan Orlando adopted the BRT preferred alternative back in 2013. That plan calls for dedicated lanes in the W192 highway median, a fleet of rubber-tire vehicles and a minimum frequency of every 15 minutes. That's what is moving into project development this year. 

The same infrastructure improvements that would be needed for traditional buses on W192 could also be utilized with the smaller autonomous shuttles, she said.  

Olore said the shuttles could operate on a fixed route, but smart technology and greater maneuverability means they could drop passengers off at the door of their destination. 

"I think that there are great uses of them in mixed traffic, but the purpose of having a dedicated lane is that you’re bypassing the traffic," she said. "I think there’s a future for both."

Olore said she's working with FDOT on the final scope for bid documents for the BRT design study. 

"The original BRT concept had a median-running exclusive lane, and then it got into mixed-traffic," Olore said. "We're going to move forward with the design for an exclusive lane, and then as the regulatory framework catches up to that, moving into mixed traffic."

The 2013 study by VHB pegged the cost at around $56 million.

Here in Central Florida, the city of Orlando and Lynx have sought federal funding to use the city's LYMMO lanes for an autonomous shuttle trial. And Walt Disney World was reportedly negotiating with two leading manufacturers for a fleet of autonomous shuttles to transport employees on park property.

If that goes well the Disney shuttles would begin transporting park visitors sometime next year, the L.A. Times reported.

Have a tip about Central Florida development? Contact me at lkinsler@GrowthSpotter.com or (407)420-6261, or tweet me at @LKinslerOGrowth. Follow GrowthSpotter on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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