The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded a $20 million federal grant to Orange County, Fla., to expand its autonomous shuttle system in Lake Nona, a piece of the $62 million total awarded to three cities across the state.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the grant recipients during a visit Tuesday to southeast Orlando, where she was accompanied by Gov. Ron DeSantis and state Transportation Secretary Kevin Thibault. The trio lauded that roughly $883 million has been set aside for awards, like Lake Nona, under the new Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants.
Orange County was one of more than 600 applicants nationwide that received funding.
The grant money will be used to bankroll the Local Alternative Mobility Network Project, which will create designated lanes for the current driverless bus system, known as Beep, deployed in September.
Presently, the system offers two shuttles that run a 1.2-mile fixed route between Lake Nona Town Center and Laureate Park. The goal is to expand the service to a 25-mile route throughout the area.
Driverless vehicles have been under increased scrutiny after a fatal car accident involving an Uber autonomous SUV last year in Arizona. But, those in favor of removing drivers from the roadways propose that the emerging technology is safer.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has tapped Central Florida as a test bed for driverless vehicles.
Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has publicly said he would like to implement the technology in the downtown LYMMO buses, but Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings took it a step further with a statement remarking how driverless shuttles could ferry visitors around International Drive and the Orange County Convention Center.
A focal point of the Lake Nona project will be the construction of a 21,000-square-foot “mobility hub,” according to the Orlando Sentinel. Jessi Blakley, vice president of Nona developer Tavistock, said the hub would be comparable to a train station.
“You’re going to be able to walk in and you’re going to be able to see where the shuttles are, what the schedules are,” Blakely told the Orlando Sentinel. “If you rode your bike to work, there’s going to be really nice facilities where you can shower, perhaps store your bike if you’re walking through the town center and just want to grab a shaded spot and a cold drink.”
Other Florida grant recipients include $20 million for sea terminal improvements in Jacksonville and $22 million for an enhanced mass transit corridor in Miami.