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Thursday, Oct 19, 2017
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Romano: How Tampa Bay might usher in a new world of driverless technology

The time has come to embrace our weakness, Tampa Bay.

When it comes to the future of mass transit, we seem to have ignored, argued and delayed ourselves right into a potentially enviable situation. In other words, our aversion to trains may actually pay off.

The world is about to change when it comes to how people travel from Point A to Point B. And one of the area's most high-profile business owners thinks this market is uniquely positioned to take advantage of what could be a transformative — and wildly lucrative — industry.

Just imagine, Tampa Bay Rays owner Stu Sternberg suggests, the bay area becoming an incubator for the driverless car revolution.

"Wouldn't it be nice if Tampa Bay was associated with something forward-thinking, innovative and science-related?'' Sternberg said. "There is a massive rainbow with a pot of gold waiting at the end of this, and Tampa Bay should go all-out for it. This could bring real money and real jobs.''

Why Tampa Bay?

Sternberg rattles off reasons, one after another. Climate. Plenty of roads in good shape. Decent-sized population but not overcrowded. And, perhaps most important, no money already tied up in subsidizing an existing rail system.

He's not suggesting Tampa Bay completely ignore the idea of trains, but says it makes more sense to invest in new technology rather than play catchup on rails.

"It's just a question of time. Will the technology fully exist in five years? No. Will it be here in 30 years? Yes,'' Sternberg said. "So, pick a date and get prepared, and I'd say the quicker the better. If you're talking about spending tens of millions on mass transit, I think you're better off taking a big swing at this technology. It's going to be a hit. It's just a matter of whether it's a triple, a home run or a grand slam.''

• • •

The first thing you need to know about driverless technology?

Apparently, you cannot overestimate its impact.

A recent analysis done by Morgan Stanley asked rhetorically what would be the next $100 billion industry. The answer? Global mobility, i.e. autonomous cars, will be equal to 100 of the next $100 billion industries.

Here's a short and simplified version of how it changes the world:

Transportation will become a product that you use as needed. Instead of driving yourself everywhere and parking your car, you order an autonomous vehicle that drops you off wherever you're going.

Congestion on roads is eased because driverless cars will be more efficient. They'll take better routes, and drive closer to each other. Three-lane roads can become four-lane roads.

City planning will change because massive parking lots and garages will no longer be needed. Traffic accidents and fatalities will be greatly reduced, which will change trauma centers and law enforcement workloads. Auto insurance will have to adapt. Gas stations will go out of business as more cars become electric.

Think about how the world changed when automobiles were invented around the start of the 20th century.

And now think of the Honda in your driveway as a horse in 1898.

• • •

The race, so to speak, has already begun.

Pittsburgh agreed to partner with Uber for a driverless car experiment. Tempe, Ariz., did the same. Uber opened up a research hub in Toronto. Columbus, Ohio, won a $40 million grant from the Department of Transportation to fund driverless car research. South Korea is building a mock city to simulate driving conditions, and autonomous technology is being developed in cities across the U.K.

So is Tampa Bay already behind?

Yes, and no.

We don't have the same talent pool of engineers and tech innovators as other markets, but the state has been making infrastructure plans for toll roads that could be easily converted to driverless lanes.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, recognized the potential years ago, and has been introducing legislation that makes Florida among the most progressive states in the country when it comes to driverless laws.

He's not as optimistic as Sternberg about Tampa Bay's potential as a hub, but he said the state can potentially save billions simply by understanding the changes that are about to arrive, and planning accordingly.

"We are incredibly well-positioned to be an early deployment state for this technology,'' Brandes said. "This will fundamentally change our thinking in how we redesign cities moving forward.''

Manufacturers and tech outfits are not yet beating down our doors, but testing models are already popping up around Tampa Bay. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority got a grant to test autonomous cars on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. Florida Polytechnic University and Florida's Turnpike Enterprise are teaming up to build a 2.25-mile oval track on a 400-acre site in Polk County to test high-speed tolls as well as driverless cars. An Orlando partnership was named one of 10 U.S. Department of Transportation pilot sites.

"What we're doing is trying to create an environment to draw (tech companies) in,'' said Paul Steinman, who oversees the Tampa Bay area for the Florida Department of Transportation.

A few years ago, St. Petersburg and the Chamber of Commerce teamed up for a Grow Smarter initiative that has focused on areas such as marine life sciences and creative art design. Mayor Rick Kriseman said Sternberg's transportation concept would fit easily within those plans in the city's innovation district.

"That's what the innovation district is all about — identifying and targeting and being selective about what we go after,'' Kriseman said. "We need to be looking 20 years out instead of just the next two or three years. We can't limit ourselves. We have to recognize the potential of technology and understand how quickly things are going to change.''

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