Fleet Success Stories: City of Altamonte Springs

Bailey Nolting EV Information, Online Article

Altamonte Springs is located in the northern area of the Central Florida (Orlando) region, and was established as a city in 1920. It is recognized for its innovative, fiscally responsible, and progressive ideas. From forward-thinking projects and proactive initiatives to an evolving business climate and environmentally-friendly projects, Altamonte Springs has set an example for other municipalities by striving to work beyond the typical constraints of local government. This includes establishing their own electric utility to provide a diverse array of renewable energy sources for their government facilities while still being served by an investor owned utility. Their most recent innovation is an autonomous vehicle (AV) shuttle project serving the city center known as Uptown Altamonte. This mixed-use development area is anchored by a regional shopping mall and Interstate 4 (connecting Daytona Beach, Orlando and Tampa). The fully electric AV shuttles are the latest acquisition to the city’s electric vehicle fleet.

Now known as CraneRIDES, this cutting-edge AV shuttle pilot provides convenient and sustainable transport options to connect people to major activity centers. CraneRIDES is an environmentally-friendly and proactive initiative to extend mobility and access to goods and services for residents, visitors and businesses. The shuttle riders can hop on and off to experience the future of this emerging technology. Altamonte Springs is located in a regional crossroads where millions drive through each year. Now, residents and visitors will have alternatives to get around easily while saving time by avoiding congested roads or having to park multiple times. AV shuttle stops are convenient to local destinations, and will help move the workforce to the workplace.

The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) chose the City to serve as a testbed for the AV shuttle project and provide data on implementing the technology in other municipalities. To onboard this new pilot project, the FDOT awarded a grant that provides 50 percent of the project funding for the first three years of operation.

“The State has a vested interest in developing multiple modes of transportation that can efficiently move people. Autonomous vehicles can be part of the solution,” said Florida Department of Transportation District 5 Secretary John E. Tyler. “With the hundreds of people moving to Florida every day, building new roads cannot be our only focus. Our partnership with the City of Altamonte Springs creates a scalable, replicable model that other Florida communities can now evaluate through hands-on experience because of our CraneRIDES AV partnership with the City.” The pilot program was launched with Beep Inc., provider of autonomous shared mobility solutions headquartered in central Florida. The project will explore alternative transit modes and offer solutions for the changing economic and urban landscape.

City Manager Frank Martz is a founding board member of the Autonomous Connected Electric Shared (ACES) Mobility Coalition. “Altamonte Springs has a rich history in pioneering many high-profile initiatives over the years with the goal of preparing our city for the future,” said Martz. “The data and lessons learned from our project will serve as a blueprint for other cities on utilizing autonomous shuttles to create greater access for everyone.” Martz was also led the first community mobility program ever launched by Uber. That program led to changes in Florida law and how local governments viewed transportation network companies. The program was replicated in 70 cities on four continents. Martz was named one of the top ten transit innovators by Eno Center for Transportation.

Outputs and Outcomes

The city’s foray into alternative fuel vehicles has been progressive and deliberate. Their focus has been on the ability to get the vehicles and the ability to charge them more flexibly, versus CNG and Hydrogen, for example. The city’s fleet started to use hybrid vehicles 20 years ago, beginning with hybrid vehicles and now moving to fully electric. They now have 72 hybrid vehicles (police interceptors) and three fully electric utility vehicles, in addition to the electric autonomous shuttles. The decision to transition to electric vehicles did not involve any policy changes or public input and approval. City Manager Martz does not consider it leadership to ask for permission to do something that should obviously be done for the benefit of the community and the environment. The city has always had intentional operational goals based upon environmental awareness, allowing them to deploy equipment and programs that are proven and reduce carbon emissions.

Altamonte Springs’ stakeholder engagement takes the form of demonstrating the practical application of the technology, rather than promotion of the technology. The community is aware of the city’s environmental leadership, even though they may not know about specific projects. It is not unusual to find their police officers engaging with the public, educating them on the benefits of EVs, especially with the children in the community who will, in their lifetimes, surely be driving EVs. The city’s EV charging stations, located on public land and accessible to the public, are well known. Duke Energy and the city will also be meeting with the community as they develop additional charging infrastructure to get input on location and types of chargers needed. They will also address safety concerns in the process.

The AV pilot stakeholder engagement efforts differed slightly in that the public-private partnership necessitated the engagement of the state’s department of transportation and central Florida’s transportation planning organization, MetroPlan. Internal stakeholder engagement with staff when the time came to roll out electric vehicles began with managers and supervisors to garner early acceptance. They chose team members that could model the behaviors to the rest of the staff, and found that people came on board. They found that those who typically disliked change, suddenly embraced it, and now it has become an organizational philosophy that bleeds over to all the departments.

EV user acceptance and satisfaction is tracked by the city. Their police officers were surprised with the softer ride with the EVs. The quiet operation and acceleration and deceleration especially appealed to them. And while the Chief of Police was initially teased by other police chiefs for driving a hybrid sedan rather than the typical oversized gasoline powered vehicle, his forward thinking and acceptance of EVs has had a ripple effect.

Best Practices & Lessons Learned

One aspect of the AV pilot is the evaluation of the vehicle operations to consider additional acquisitions. One surprise was the impact that Florida’s warm summer climate had on the vehicle battery degradation. The frequency of the door opening and closing on the autonomous vehicle caused the air conditioner to adjust to the ambient air entering the vehicle, resulting in the vehicles battery only operating at 60 percent of its expected capacity.

CraneRIDES provides a transportation alternative to busy State Road 436, which sees upwards of 60,000 vehicles traversing daily.

Vehicle maintenance costs are less with their electric fleet, with annual maintenance pegged at about $150. In hindsight, the city would have started EV maintenance training with their fleet technicians sooner, since they were so accustomed to working on gas powered vehicles, such training would have made the transition easier.

When the city began considering hybrids, they focused on starting small. Rather than transitioning half of their predominantly gasoline fueled fleet all at once, they developed a migration program. As a result, they achieved small successes while mapping out transition of vehicles. Planning is essential and the horizon is years out to allow for adequate preparation. There are inherent risks in using a vehicle beyond its useful life, and any ripple in the supply chain can impact their acquisition focus and timeline. Safety is the highest priority. In fact, the City of Altamonte Springs received the 2023 Innovation Award from the Florida Municipal Insurance Trust Partnership. When the award was given, it was noted that the city “is actively embracing emerging technologies that benefit the community, such as solar fields, hybrid/electric fleet vehicles, AI plan review, and the CraneRIDES autonomous vehicle pilot project.”

According to Martz, team members are critical, as is making hybrid and electric vehicles a part of city philosophy. There is organizational identification that Altamonte Springs is going to be an electrified city, and an understanding of the importance of being ecologically and environmentally friendly. The city is always looking for new things to do to build on their previous efforts, rather than settle on what has been accomplished.

Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Frank Martz, Altamonte Springs City Manager, for his contributions to this story.