TAMPA — You begin your trip by entering the address of your destination into a digital device linked to your new car. You’re behind the steering wheel, which has become a redundant accessory, in a so-called Autonomous Vehicle, distinguishable by its array of high-tech antennas.
Not only has a computer mapped out your quickest and least congested route to work or the ballpark, a system of artificial intelligence software, laser and radar sensors, and a GPS navigation system takes control of steering, accelerating, cruising and braking. It’s practically a driverless vehicle, just one developmental phase short of the Jetsons concept of hands-off driving. Engineers in the emerging auto-industry revolution say AVs will dramatically change the safety, costs and convenience of driving.
AVs have been tested on Florida highways, one of three states — along with California and Nevada — with laws permitting AVs on the roads, including some on Interstates that have been mapped to provide digital guideways.
Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and Volvo are among manufacturers testing driverless cars, variously called Autonomous Vehicles, Autonomous Cars and Automated Vehicles. Nissan and others have set a goal to put an AV on the road by 2020.
“The emerging technology is not as far-fetched as people may imagine,” said Florida Secretary of Transportation Ananth Prasad, who got a 70 mph demonstration ride on Interstate 10 near Tallahassee in one of Google’s AVs.
Google has tested its AV in an effort to advance the concept and stake a place in the emerging industry, an outlier of sorts among the auto industry giants that could market the navigational system and other technology it developed.
“Google basically mapped a center line on the Interstate lanes the car could follow.” Prasad said. “The car sensed its surroundings. It would accelerate, or slow down when another vehicle was in front of us, and alert us when the driver should take over, like getting off on a ramp.”
Florida is trying to be at the head of the game as AV technology evolves, Prasad said.
“We need to know how the technology will affect the infrastructure we must plan,” he said.
With that goal in mind, DOT, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research, will host the Florida Automated Vehicles summit in Tampa on Thursday and Friday for elected officials, trade organizations, transportation professionals and manufacturers.
The event with a $299 registration fee is not intended for the public, but is planned as a first step in promoting awareness in Florida with transportation interests exchanging ideas on AV concepts.
Paul Steinman, DOT’s District 7 Secretary for a five-county Tampa Bay region, became an early aficionado of AV technology when he worked for the Michigan Department of Transportation where he had close access to automotive industry officials exploring the concept.
“Everyone was trying to figure out how to improve safety,” Steinman said. An AV’s network of electronic and mechanical devices can react much quicker than humans and would not suffer from a loss of attention or deficit of driving skills.
Engineers like Steinman refer to four broad stages of technology involved in a phased evolution toward making full use of AV technology:
An early example is cruise control, now standard equipment on most cars.
Collision avoidance systems car manufacturers developed in the past decade. These primarily provide forward monitoring of obstacles. Some include automatic braking.
Multiple AV concepts that require some hands-on driving at times, the stage manufacturers would like to put on the highways by 2020. These could include new vehicle-to-vehicle technologies, through which vehicles can communicate with one another to warn drivers of imminent collisions by sharing data. The automobile industry and U.S. Department of Transportation are exploring “V2V.”
The “Jetsons” stage. Hands off mobility in a vehicle whose steering wheel might no longer resemble those of today, a system where a driver could work on a digital tablet or read a book. These vehicles can even get around without a driver, eliminating parking needs and providing multiple uses for family members, reducing the need for a second or third family car.
“Some of this is already in,” Steinman said. “All we are doing is pushing the ball forward as technology continues to evolve. We want to focus on how to prepare (highway) infrastructure, what happens with insurance, what happens if a hacker gets into a system?
“We need to figure out what we must do with a structure like the new northbound span planned for the Howard Frankland Bridge to accommodate AVs.
“There probably won’t be a large majority of AVs in the first five years of the new span, but we need to prepare infrastructure to accept new technology, so we don’t have to do a lot of going back later.”
In the foreseeable future, cost is the primary obstacle to AVs.
Cost estimates based on test cars indicate more than $100,000 worth of AV equipment is required at the current price of technology, an October report by the Eno Center for Transportation showed.
“At current high technology costs of $100,000 or more, benefits are mostly small compared to purchase prices,” the report stated. “Once prices come down to $37,500, persons with high values of travel time and/or parking costs may find the technology a worthwhile investment.
“Only at the $10,000 added price does the technology become a realistic investment for many with even the $1 per hour time value savings and $1 daily parking cost savings generating an 11 percent rate of return for AV owners.”
Potential benefits include the dramatic potential to reduce crashes, the Eno report stated, with driver error believed to be the main reason behind more than 90 percent of crashes.
AVs can reduce congestion and fuel consumption by sensing a lead vehicles’ braking and accelerating decisions, leading to fuel savings and more efficient use of existing lanes and intersections, the report said.
While congestion improvements will depend on the advanced vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, congestion reduction could occur if safety benefits alone are realized, because 25 percent of congestion is attributed to traffic incidents.
The report said many benefits would not be realized until high shares of AVs are on the roads, but even if 10 percent of vehicles on a freeway segment are AVs, traffic could be smoothed for all travelers.
“Some people don’t trust AVs, but they’ve been around a long time,” Steinman said. “Like the people mover at Tampa International Airport, AVs don’t have to be cars.” People have been riding the airport’s people movers without a driver at 30 mph toward a concrete building for more than 40 years, Tampa International Chief Executive Joe Lopano said, an example he uses to show the Tampa Bay region has embraced transportation innovation.
Lopano’s current AV focus is to build a people mover system from the main airport terminal to a new remote rental car facility, that eventually could be extended to a West Shore multimodal transportation center.
Trucks eventually could utilize AV technology.
“I think within two years (long-distance) trucks will have to be equipped with collision avoidance equipment,” said Phares Acuff, of Florida Utility Trailers Inc. in Lakeland.
The Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Agency does not have a position on AVs, but generally welcomes looking into how emerging technology can make roadways operate more efficiently, Assistant Executive Director Beth Alden said.
“With or without automation, affordability of vehicle purchase and maintenance will continue to be a challenge.”