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Solar-Powered Town Has America’s First Self-Driving Shuttle Network

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Later this year, if someone moves into a house in Babcock Ranch–a newly built, fully solar-powered town in Florida–they’ll be able to take an autonomous shuttle to the grocery store. The shuttles (powered by electricity from the community’s own massive solar farm) will be part of the first autonomous network in the country, reported Fast Company (US).

The shuttles are also the first step in an array of mobility options that residents will eventually be able to access from an app: autonomous pods that carry one or two people, larger autonomous buses, car-sharing, bike-sharing, and charter transit. The town, which will eventually be home to nearly 50,000 people, is also designed to be walkable. The long-term goal: If you live here, you’ll decide you don’t need to own a car.

“Right now, people generally have two cars,” Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, the development company that planned the ultra-sustainable 18,000-acre community, tells Fast Company. “What we’re hoping people realize when they move to Babcock Ranch is very quickly they’re only going to need one car, and then our ultimate goal is for them to realize they don’t need any cars. Think about what that means from a perspective of the home buyer–they now have a two-car garage that could be used for something else.”

Realizing that habits are hard to immediately change, the town was planned with the assumption that residents would move in with cars. But the design also assumes that personal vehicles, particularly those that run on gas, will become less and less common. “As we planned the community, it was with that in mind–someday, we’re not going to need these parking lots,” Kitson says. “There are parking lots that we put in that are designed to become parks, for example.”

Because the community was designed with different forms of mobility in mind, it was easier to work with than converting an existing city, says Dick Alexander, executive vice president of Transdev, the transit company planning the new town’s “mobility as a service” system. “You don’t have those legacy issues that you would in an already built-out environment,” he says. Store owners won’t complain about losing parking spaces to bike-share; residents will be less likely to complain about slow-moving autonomous vehicles if they’ve been on local streets from the beginning.

The streets are privately owned, which also meant that there was less bureaucracy involved in using autonomous vehicles; Florida also strongly supports autonomous technology. “Regulatory-wise, they’re much easier to work with and much more advanced in making sure that the legal structure encourages the development of autonomy rather than discourages it,” Alexander says.

The town will also experiment with new models. Package delivery, for example, will eventually be integrated with on-demand vehicles, so people and goods can be delivered together and there will be less traffic on roads. All mobility options, including transportation outside of the community, will be in a single app.

The new homes, which start at around $180,000 for townhouses and $200,000 for single-family houses, are part of a complete small city. In a downtown district, which sits next to a 13-acre waterfront park, the first businesses–a restaurant, offices, and a grocery store–opened earlier this year. A school with 156 elementary school students opened in August. Residents will begin moving into the first homes by the end of 2017. (The first self-driving shuttles will begin running in November, initially taking people to visit model homes, and the network will grow along with the community.)

The developers are hoping that Babcock Ranch will serve as a model for other cities–both in terms of providing an array of mobility options, and in terms of the specific benefits of autonomous vehicles, including reducing traffic accidents and giving people who can’t drive easier access to transportation. “There are huge societal benefits we’re trying to prove,” says Kitson. “We want Babcock Ranch to be the place where we can prove that out.”

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Reporter: Denes Osvalt
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