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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Autonomous Shuttle Test Driven in Downtown Winter Haven 

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Autonomous Shuttle Test Driven in Downtown Winter Haven

by James Coulter

Imagine visiting Downtown Winter Haven for the evening. You park your car at the city parking garage and wait outside. A shuttle the size of a van pulls up. The door opens. You step inside and take a seat. You ride along until you find the bar or eatery you wish to visit. You signal for the vehicle to stop and it lets you off. You then spend the rest of the evening having dinner and perusing shops and boutiques. By the end of the night, you board another shuttle back to the garage so you can drive your car home.

Oh, and the shuttle doesn’t have a driver! It’s an autonomous vehicle!

This scenario may sound out-of-this-world, but it could be a reality. The City of Winter Haven recently allowed an autonomous vehicle to be test-driven in the downtown area last Saturday.

COAST Autonomous, in partnership with the City of Winter Haven, hosted a public demonstration of an autonomous shuttle in Downtown Winter Haven last weekend. The vehicle, which fits seven people, was set up along Magnolia Avenue near the water tower and across the street from Jensen’s Bar.

The vehicle was programmed on Friday to travel along the walkway and around the parking lot area in preparation for its test drive; unfortunately, due to technical difficulties, it was operational the day of the test drive. However, people were still free to take a look at the vehicle and ask questions about it toCOAST staff members.

COAST Autonomous, according to its website, “is a self-driving technology company providing mobility solutions to move people and goods at appropriate speeds in urban, industrial, and campus environments. COAST was established to build community by connecting people with mobility solutions that put pedestrians first and give cities back to people.”

Adrian Sussman, President of COAST Autonomous, compares the autonomous vehicle they tested that weekend to be like “an elevator on wheels.” Such a vehicle is fitted with cameras and sensors that allow it to travel along a “virtual track” (created through virtual mapping) and stop for pedestrians and other obstacles. The shuttle is ideal for transporting passengers within college campuses and city centers over shorter distances than traditional buses.

Although the shuttle was unable to properly function the day of the test drive, it functioned well the day before and managed to attract many curious onlookers, explained Pierre Lefevre, COAST Autonomous CTO. He hopes that these tests will allow these vehicles to one day become a reality and allow for walkable cities free of traffic.

“These vehicles have been designed to help people live in walkable cities, to give cities back to people rather than cars,” he said. “The idea is to remove some of the cars from city centers and make them walkable activities, to do that, you need a vehicle to move passengers, to get a ride for where you are going with people.”

Winter Haven was the “ideal” city to test drive their vehicles—or rather, have the vehicles test drive themselves, explained Adrian Sussman, President of COAST Autonomous. Downtown Winter Haven is an ideal environment where such autonomous transportation can be implemented, allowing for more pedestrians and fewer cars.

“This is a beautiful city center,” he said. “They are doing an amazing job developing downtown, and we want to be part of that growth with something unique that can benefit the community…When the elevator was invented, it changed the way buildings were designed, you can build buildings that were taller. This technology can change the way you design downtown. You can remove the cars, put them on the outside, and connect them with these types of elevators on wheels. That is the idea, it is creating more walkable cities.”

Many curious residents turned out Saturday morning to take a close look at the vehicle. Brian Varner was initially skeptical about autonomous transportation, but after seeing the shuttle firsthand and speaking with COAST staff, he become more thoroughly convinced of its practicality. As a technologist with experience with cybersecurity, he was impressed by the shuttle’s technology and its applicability in the downtown area.

“It could be something to expand the footprint of downtown,” he said. “As you can see, parking can be a premium down here, so rather than park down here, they can park far away and jump on and visit some of the places further down.”

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