The Successful, Driverless Shuttle in Orlando
Feb 26, 2021—Florida-based Beep, an autonomous shuttle company, made headlines when the nation's first national park, Yellowstone, announced it would be participating in a pilot program.
ADAPT interviewed Beep CEO Joe Moye about plans for deployment in Yellowstone National Park in November. But by that time, Beep's shuttles had already taken off in its home turf. An autonomous Beep shuttle has been ferrying residents of Lake Nona, Fla., on a low-speed route for more than a year. The company said in late 2020 that it had transported more than 16,000 people by then.
As the shuttle service expands to other communities, it's worth a look at what these small test sites can mean for the larger transportation ecosystem.
What is it?
The Lake Nona autonomous shuttle runs along Tavistock Lake Boulevard in Lake Nona, a wealthy suburb of Orlando. The shuttle runs at a low speed—15 mph maximum—and carries up to 10 people at a time during normal operation.
While it's operated by Beep, the shuttle itself is an AUTONOM model from the French company Navya. According to Lake Nona's website, it has eight 3D LiDAR sensors on board, each with a 200-foot range. The vehicle doesn't have a driver, but it does have an attendant on board.
Matt Broffman, the director of Innovation for the city of Orlando, told ADAPT that this was one of many safety features that the city wanted as part of a planning process that involved the state department of transportation, the city, Beep and other stakeholders.
“We want that rollout to be seamless," Broffman says. "That’s really important. Part of having the driver on board is safety. This person can take over if need be.”
Another key planning element was determining how the shuttle fit into the larger transportation ecosystem.
“I think the other thing is understanding the use cases, both on point-to-point and also last mile," Broffman says. "How does this connect to other transportation solutions and really thinking about how does this expand into the rest of the city.”
Introducing the Autonomous Shuttle
One big success of the Lake Nona Autonomous Shuttle isn't the transportation. It's the introduction of a working autonomous solution to the public. Studies have shown that acceptance and perception are real hurdles to overcome in the areas of electrification and automation. In order to be financially feasible, there needs to be a strong base of users who are comfortable with this mode of transportation.
That was on the mind of Orlando officials from the start. Broffman says that the city has big plans for the future of transportation systems, and this was a crucial step.
“Really what we’re looking for is not just safety but also public acceptance," he says. "The barrier for autonomous vehicles is going to be public acceptance.”
The potential for growth will require improvements to the tech. The Lake Nona shuttle is not in a crowded downtown environment, which would have more traffic, more pedestrians and less predictability. Wider use of an autonomous shuttle would also need to travel at normal road speeds to be efficient and reduce disruptions on the road. Broffman says these are all factors that the city has in mind.
But the service is expanding nonetheless. Late last year, the planned community of Tradition in Port St. Lucie, Fla., announced a smooth rollout of a Beep autonomous shuttle service.
With local governments like these that are willing to take small steps toward automation, the future of transportation systems begin to take shape.