HART, Tesla unveil new public transit electric SUVs for short rides in North Tampa

Crowds gathered on a grassy knoll behind the Marshall Center at the University of South Florida (USF) to watch the unveiling of a greener, brighter transit solution for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). Under a grand oak tree, dignitaries ranging from the likes of Congresswoman Kathy Castor to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn took the lectern to herald the arrival of the next generation of HART transportation in the Bay Area. 

There wasn’t necessarily talk of adding more buses to the fleet of 180 that cover HART’s 1,000-square-mile service area or extending existing bus routes. Rather, HART and other Tampa-area transportation thought leaders unveiled four Tesla Model X electric SUV vehicles that became part of the HART HyperLINK first-mile, last-mile service in North Tampa beginning Monday, April 24. 

In addition to launching the Tesla HyperLINK vehicles, officials also touched on another exciting development. 

“We will have autonomous shuttles on the Marion Street Transitway by the end of the year,” announces HART’s Chief Executive Officer Katharine Eagan. “The Tesla vehicles are not autonomous yet but they will be ready to go for that,” she says of the cars, which are already equipped with self-driving hardware that she and other HART officials hope to fully utilize soon. 

“This is an exciting time,” says Buckhorn. “We’ve never seen a transformation in our city like we’re seeing right now.” 

Funding for these programs comes from state and federal funds -- monies that Representative Kathy Castor, who serves Florida’s 14th Congressional District, says supporters must continue working hard to protect. “We need to demonstrate we are being smart with every dollar we receive and are doing innovative things to help fight for the transit-oriented future here in Tampa and keep funding for these and other projects.”

Innovation on our minds

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, the executive director of Tampa Innovation Alliance, says using Tesla Model X vehicles is the smartest method for providing a solution to the first-mile, last-mile transit gaps that plague many parts of the Tampa mass transit bus grid. 

“We want to make Tomorrowland part of our area here,” he remarks. “HyperLINK is going to do it.”

Sharpe is working with North Tampa partners such as USF, Busch Gardens, and Florida Hospital to redevelop the Fowler Avenue corridor as a medical-technical hub. 
 
The HART HyperLINK pilot program is the first of its kind offered by a transit agency anywhere in the United States. The app-based, on-demand rideshare service offers rides for a $3 fare and takes individuals to and from HART transit hubs located within three miles. Now with four futuristic Tesla vehicles mixed into the fleet of HyperLINK vehicles in North Tampa, it’s possible to experience a short trip in one of the world’s most popular electric vehicles for less than the price of a cup of gourmet coffee. Presently, treks in the Tesla SUVs must either originate or end at the University Area Transit Center. 

While the battery-operated Tesla vehicles turned many heads at their USF unveiling, novelty isn’t what individuals like Sharpe are seeking with the program. He and the Tampa transportation officials say we may be seeing many more Tesla Model X cars, autonomous shuttles and other transit innovations on an everyday basis in the Tampa area in a few short years. 

With Tesla vehicles already shuffling HART customers around North Tampa, HART plans on moving commuters on bi-directional autonomous shuttles running up and down Marion Street Transitway in downtown Tampa before 2018. 

“This is one of the only AV [autonomous vehicle] projects in the state and among the first in the country,” says Cesar Hernandez, the HART government relations specialist who is working with state legislators, scientists and others to make programs such as the Tesla HyperLINK initiative and Marion Street Transitway autonomous shuttle program a reality. 

“This is completely new, disruptive technology,” he says. It’s also one that presents social, policy and legal challenges that, until a few years ago, didn’t exist. “For anybody to say they know how to completely operate in this environment is misspeaking.” 

Balancing technology with policy, practicality 

State Sen. Jeffrey Brandes, a Pinellas County Republican whose name comes up often in local conversations about autonomous and electric vehicle technology, is helping channel public funds to the Tampa Bay Area to foster the implementation of the technologies locally, and he is well-versed in the emerging arena of policy relating to new transportation technologies, especially those concerning autonomous vehicles. 

“Florida is a leader in automated vehicle technology, and one of the biggest areas of change will be in policy,” Brandes says. “Florida has some of the most advanced laws anywhere. We have a Legislature talking about AV and taking notice of what’s going on.” 

From insurance coverage and accident liabilities to traffic laws and regulations, the expanding use of AV technology in Florida and elsewhere is creating new challenges -- and opportunities -- for lawmakers. “The world is becoming more automated and is something we need to address for the future,” Brandes says. 

The changes won’t just be in found in existing laws or with the addition of new mandates. Greater use of automated vehicles will also have effects on hospitals, parking garages and financial coffers at City Hall.  

“90 percent of accident deaths are caused by human error. If you remove the human element, it can save lives,” he says. “That also touches emergency rooms and trauma centers.” 

Brandes adds, “Many cities make lots of revenue from parking tickets and garage fees. If more vehicles are automated, you no longer have a need for parking garages like we do today,” he remarks. “That means cities will have to find new revenue streams.”

Meanwhile, power plants will also need to be improved as electric vehicles become more commonplace. “If more vehicles are plugging into the grid at night, we will need to upgrade power grids to accommodate the increase in electric demand. And since electric vehicles don’t use gas, that means less revenue from the gas tax.”

All of these evolutions may also mean a change in how we pay to get around. 

“I think we’re going to see traveling be charged on a per-mile basis, with all of those fees rolled into a simple per-mile charge. We’ll buy transportation by the mile, maybe 20, 30 or 40 cents per mile.”

Brandes predicts that as policymakers continue finding solutions to these and other challenges and technology continues to evolve, we may see more pronounced changes in the years ahead. 

“AV is going to happen gradually,” he comments. “And then suddenly we’re going to see auto manufacturers such as Tesla dropping 500 AVs into a downtown hub, and people are going to embrace it. Once you can prove that self-driving vehicles are better than cars driven by humans, there will be wider-scale adoption of the technology.”

Merging new technology with daily realities 

Plans may look great on paper, and innovative pilot programs can help turn those concepts into a reality, but how will autonomous vehicles become an everyday experience for more people, and what will help charge the growth of electric vehicles in Florida? 

Paul Steinman, Executive Director of the Florida State Department of Transportation District (FDOT) VII, which covers the Tampa Bay Area, believes the technologies go hand-in-hand, and that seeing them both thrive will require more research but even more so, more public acceptance. 

“AV technology is coming along well,” he says. “FDOT funded the $1.2 million HART autonomous shuttle program, but we think at this stage it’s less about implementation of the technology and more about getting the public to accept the technology. Some people don’t want computers driving them around.” 

The goal is to therefore help adapt people to the technology in ways that might help make them feel more comfortable with it and what it has to offer. “The autonomous shuttles cater to Millennials, who prefer smaller, more personal modes of transportation. Instead of carrying 40 or 50 passengers like the buses do, a HART autonomous shuttle carries around 12 people.” 

The Marion Street Transitway is a logical place to test the shuttles due to its proximity to major Tampa attractions near The Florida Aquarium and new developments by Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team owner Jeff Vinik, Steinman says. 

“I fully expect [the program] to be successful,” he notes. “If it is, we could expand it to other parts of Tampa. We want to show it as a viable solution. Similar technology is used on the Las Vegas strip, and officials in other Florida cities, such as Jacksonville, are also looking into adopting the technology.

Meanwhile, Steinman is working with policymakers, academic scholars and technology experts on another piece of the transit puzzle: electric vehicles. Specifically, he and others are working on ways to help charge electric vehicles, which generally have ranges of less than 300 miles, while they are driving on the highway. 

The solution? Solar roadways. 

“Solar roadways are part of the future as electric vehicles see greater use,” Steinman comments. “The objective with solar roadways is to extend the range of electric vehicles.” While the technology may sound far-fetched to some, prototype solar roadway panels are already being tested.

“Right now, testing durability is one of the most important goals we’re trying to meet in testing. We don’t want to use anything that won’t stand the test of time,” he says.

The panels measure 12 feet by 12 feet and are large and heavy. Steinman says the biggest challenge is in adapting them for use in a mass-scale highway setting. 

“Presently the [prototype] panels do not have any friction coating on the surface, so if the panels get wet during a rainstorm, vehicles could slip -- it would be like driving on ice skates.” 

Another goal is to make the panels easier to repair and replace, like changing out a light bulb. 

“Eventually, we could develop a pilot program where these panels could be tested out along certain stretches of roadway, allowing us to see if these work in a mass setting or if we need to fine tune things further.”

Steinman and other state officials are working quickly to address the issues, especially as more electric vehicles hit the roads in the Sunshine State. 

According to Doug Kettles, a research analyst with the Electric Vehicle Transportation Center, there are more than 19,000 electric passenger vehicles registered in the state of Florida. 

“I speak with a lot of people in Florida, and my sense is that they are very interested in EVs [electric vehicles] but have been put off by the limited travel range. This problem will become less of an issue with the availability of the new Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3,” he says. 

“I think we are at a tipping point with advanced battery technology and manufacturing, and with the introduction of the new Chevrolet Bolt and Tesla Model 3 we see electric cars that are less than $30,000 with the federal income tax credit. Both cars can travel over 200 miles on a single charge,” he notes. 

Kettles says that electric vehicles symbolize the beginning of a trend.

“The large-scale deployment of EVs will happen sooner rather than later -- a plummeting lower total cost of ownership will make these vehicles irresistible.” 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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