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JTA Tests First ADA Accessible Autonomous Transit Vehicle In The US

By Bill Bortzfield, WJCT-FM 89.9 

JTA’s autonomous vehicle program for Jacksonville’s urban core is coming together, marking a new milestone on Thursday.

The transit agency is testing what it says is the first Americans with Disabilities Act accessible autonomous vehicle in the U.S.

Among those on hand to try out the future of transit was Sharon Hoffmeyer Dykes, who lives on the Westside.

After taking a ride in the autonomous Navya electric test vehicle she said, “I think it’s the wave of the future - and people getting around Jacksonville - even people with disabilities.”

Dykes, who has muscular dystrophy, uses a motorized wheelchair. She’s already a JTA paratransit customer.

“I love the technology and I didn’t experience any difficulties with it,” she said after the AV ride Thursday. 

JTA CEO Nathaniel P. Ford Sr. said the transit agency has made ADA accessibility a requirement for the Ultimate Urban Circulator autonomous vehicle program, nicknamed U2C.  

“It needs to be something that all of our customers and citizens can easily utilize,” said Ford.

The U2C will eventually replace the Skyway monorail cars and expand on their existing route. 

“Our current plan is having the Bay Street Innovation Corridor up and running within the next three years, and it may be sooner,” said Ford.

he corridor, officially known as the Jax Bay Innovation Corridor, will run approximately from TIAA Bank Field and down to the new Jacksonville Regional Transportation Center across from the Prime Osborn Convention Center.

“We've worked with the Jaguars in terms of their development and Lot J. And so with all of that work kind of culminating into a final design, then we'll start the engineering and start working towards actually purchase or leasing of vehicles,” Ford said.

The first phase of the U2C program is fully funded at $44 million and will be a 15-vehicle system, according to Ford.

And while the new driverless EVs will eventually replace the Skyway monorail cars, the current plan calls for the driverless people movers to debut at street level. 

Ford said the Skyway Prime Osborn Convention Center monorail line is scheduled to resume service on March 31, when the regional transportation center opens. 

A big question is whether autonomous vehicles will really be ready to launch on public streets within three years.

“That’s where we see we may have some challenges with the existing field vehicles. However, those vehicles can be manually operated,” Ford said.

Engineering work is also continuing to eventually convert the existing Skyway tracks for U2C use.  Bay Street is Phase 1 of the project, said Ford.

“Then you have the full conversion of the aerial structure for the Skyway and then you have the extensions to the neighborhoods that build out the entire 10-mile system, going all the way up to UF Shands on the Northside [and] into San Marco.”

An autonomous vehicle vendor for the project hasn’t been selected yet. JTA Vice President of Automation Bernard Schmidt said whichever vendor is ultimately chosen will be required to provide EVs that can handle 12 hours of continuous operation before needing to be recharged. 

At launch, the U2Cs will be able travel up to 35 mph, which is the maximum allowed speed on city streets.

Autonomous testing will also soon be expanded beyond the existing track that is next to Metropolitan Park at the intersection of A. Philip Randolph Boulevard and East Bay Street.

“We’re looking at taking over one of our facilities that is over in Armsdale. So that’s an option for us. We also have strong partnerships with our local universities,” said Schmidt.   

As to whether U2C will be the official name of the new autonomous mass transit program, that’s yet to be determined as well. 

“After the project is completed, we'll probably have to come up with something that fits more,” said Ford, who is also not ruling out the idea of a branding partnership with a sponsor. “I think we're open to anything that'll help us finance world class transportation,” Ford said.