Driverless buses could soon replace JTA vehicles

Future plans could impact Skyway as well

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Imagine riding a bus without a driver. It's closer to reality in Jacksonville than you think.

The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum Tuesday about autonomous vehicles and how the technology is transforming communities. According to the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, it's not if, but when driverless vehicles will replace the Skyway system and some JTA buses.

"It's going to increase mobility and hopefully reduce a lot of the congestion we have currently," said JTA CEO Nathaniel Ford Sr. "Think about the number of drivers that are driving a vehicle by themselves."

With autonomous vehicles, there is an opportunity for shared rides and less need for parking downtown. But there are also concerns about safety.

"There are a number of safety features on the bus," said Andrew Chatham, director of product development for Transdev North America. "Green button to start service, an SOS button will connect you to our dispatch center so if anyone has a question. There are a number of emergency stop buttons."

A team of people will be monitoring the fleet with cameras and can remotely gain access at any point.

"And there are sensors all around the bus so if something comes within a certain distance of it, it will automatically stop and won't hit anything or anyone," Chatham said.

The JAX Chamber hosted the forum to get more people comfortable with driverless vehicles. During the event, JTA invited the public to test out the Easy Mile model.

"It's pretty sweet. We're riding in a robot," said Gabriel Palmer, who rode the driverless bus. "How can it interact with people that don't have autonomous vehicles? What is the safety?"

To ease some of the concerns, JTA is testing several different models of autonomous vehicles for several months at a time. In about five years it plans to choose a model and transition from the Skyway to an autonomous vehicle system and some driverless buses may take over some existing routes in the city.