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(WJAX) Take an exclusive look at larger prototype for JTA’s autonomous shuttle service coming in 2025

*Note: This story was written & produced by local news station WJAX-TV (Action New Jax)*

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax’s John Bachman got an exclusive look at a major upgrade that could be coming to a multimillion dollar project in downtown Jacksonville.

Driverless shuttles are coming to the streets of downtown. Over the last several years, Action News Jax has traveled across the country to follow the development of this Jacksonville Transportation Authority project.

Now, we can show you the latest, bigger prototype. We have also learned new details on how this project is attracting worldwide interest in Jacksonville and what that could mean for more high-tech jobs.

he futuristic promotional video of self-driving shuttles moving people around downtown Jacksonville on the street and over the Skyway platform is closing in on the present.

“We’ve tested over eight different vehicle types,” JTA CEO Nat Ford said.

Just days after being revealed for the first time in Las Vegas at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, JTA has the prototype of a bigger driverless shuttle in its test facility. It’s so new, the transmission hasn’t even been installed yet. It’s one of two versions Ford hopes will be on Bay Street in two years.

“Now, after listening to the JTA and, and our colleagues around the country, this vehicle, you know, can handle 22 passengers, it has a wheelchair station,” Ford said.

$60 million in local, state, and federal money has already been set aside for the Bay Street innovation project.

In 2018, Action News Jax traveled to Las Vegas to meet up with Ford to test ride the smaller shuttle. Ford said he was working on funding and hoped the shuttles would be in downtown Jacksonville by this year. The money arrived, but the timeline shifted a bit.

Through the process, city leaders decided they wanted bigger shuttles. That pushed the schedule to 2025. There is one more hurdle to deal with however.

The prototype shuttles are built by two European companies. The federal money JTA has received has “American Made” requirements. Ford said that’s a challenge for timing, but an opportunity for Jacksonville development.

“Our project has gotten worldwide attention. So that’s going to bring investment.” Ford went on to say, “Hopefully, these companies see Northeast Florida as the place to set up shop to build these vehicles for the rest of the nation.”

For Jacksonville’s key business recruiter, Aundra Wallace, getting one of these companies is a top priority.

“That gives us a leg up so we definitely want to piggyback upon that and don’t miss this particular window of opportunity,” Wallace said.

Wallace, the president of Jax USA knows the clock is already ticking.

“Time is of the essence on this decisions will be made sometime in 2023,” he said. “And we want to we want those decisions be made considering Jacksonville.”

The Bay Street first phase includes 15 shuttles by the end of 2025. Phase 2 would expand to the Skyway platform across the river and Ford said it would call for 30 to 50 shuttles. Those are numbers Ford said could motivate companies to move to Jacksonville. There will be competition for a facility in the Southeast, but Jacksonville leaders hope having a funded project about two years from hitting the street will help seal the deal.