TAMPA — State Sen. Jeff Brandes’ view of a future with driverless cars extends well beyond the roadways.
“The world is changing here,” said the sponsor of legislation to encourage the safe development, testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on Florida roads.
“Cars are going to get radically safer,” said the St. Petersburg Republican, noting that 90 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error. “When you have 90 percent less accidents, Tampa General Hospital’s emergency room doesn’t look the same. Nor does the chiropractic center. Nor does the trial bar.
“While the autonomous vehicle stuff is sexy to talk about, the ripples are what I find really fascinating. What happens to your downtown parking garages? What happens to your malls that were designed for the day-after-Thanksgiving parking? We’re talking about an incredible amount of lives saved, an incredible amount of fuel efficiency, and rethinking how our cities work. I think this is as big a transition as moving from the horse and buggy to the Model T. And we’re going to experience it in the next 15 to 20 years.”
Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, also referred to as driverless vehicles or self-driving vehicles, aren’t a futuristic dream. They’re running on the streets of Arizona, California, Washington and Texas; they have operated on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa; and Tesla just released a car with an “autopilot” feature that can take over driving on some roads.
Brandes is among several state and local officials pushing Tampa and Florida as a proving ground for the technology.
“Florida is positioned very well in terms of how our infrastructure is set up compared to most states,” said Paul Steinman, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation’s District 7, which includes the Tampa Bay area. “The only states that even come close are California and Texas. Is Florida positioned to be a leader in the AV world? From the DOT’s perspective, and how it affects our infrastructure, most definitely.”
He said the reason for that is the state’s realization years ago that it needed to outfit Florida interstate highways with more technology, from cameras to traffic management centers and lane markings.
In 2014, Gov. Rick Scott went for a spin in an Audi A7 autonomous vehicle along the closed-down Selmon expressway, pronouncing it “a great ride.”
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The Meridian Shuttle glides to a stop in front of the butterfly garden at the Museum of Science and Industry.
“How did it know to stop here?” asks Ka’mya Broxton, age 10.
Not a bad question from the third-grader at Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg — there was no driver, no rails, and no one with any apparent remote connection to the vehicle.
Fortunately, guide Jacklyn Herbert was present to explain the LIDAR, or light-detecting and ranging process, that guides the only autonomous vehicle in North America that is available for the general public to experience.
“It’s exposure to technology that is largely misunderstood, and it’s here,” said Johnny Scotello, MOSI’s director of exhibits. “It might not be here as in this very second, but the technology exists, its being implemented, and there’s a lot of trepidation and a lot of questions.”
MOSI guests can hitch a ride from the main entrance to the garden or parking lot at a leisurely 5 mph, and on some days, the shuttle runs a complicated indoor route. The general reaction? “Pleasantly underwhelming,” said Scotello.
“They come in and they think, ‘This could go out of control, there’s a robot driving, you could hack it, I don’t see how this is possibly going to happen.’ And they get off it and say, ‘Wow, that was not exciting at all.’ Which is exactly what it needs to be for it to be functional.”
Some folks were leery of using electronic cruise control when it was introduced in 1968. Lane-departure warning systems started showing up in cars in 2001. A self-parking Toyota Prius was introduced in 2003, and the major automakers have said they’ll make automatic emergency braking — which can slow or stop a vehicle when it senses it’s at risk of a collision, even when the driver takes no action — standard by 2022.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Pam Oakes, an ASE-certified technician, author, radio personality and host of the website “Car Care for the Clueless.”
The autonomous vehicles use a combination of cameras, LIDAR, radar and GPS to determine their position. Routes are entered into an onboard computer mapping system; the MOSI system uses the “Navya” navigation system.
“Let’s not be ‘I Dream of Jeannie’ head-bobbing and say, ‘There it is,” Oakes warned. “Infrastructure needs to be improved significantly.” Potholes, poor lane markings, construction zones and weather can wreak havoc on the guidance systems. The poor conditions of more than half the nation’s roads may negate the abilities of autonomous vehicles.
Nonetheless, Oakes also foresees driverless cars on future roads.
“It’s coming. Whether you’re kicking and screaming, or the kid anticipating on Christmas Eve, it’s on its way, and it’s going to do a lot of good.”
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The movement suffered a setback on Friday, when engineers and safety advocates told the government that self-driving cars are more likely to be a threat than a boon to public safety because of unresolved technical issues. According to an Associated Press report, they told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that a slower, more deliberative approach may be needed than the agency’s plan to provide federal guidance for deploying the vehicles on roadways in just six months.
Such trepidation is not evident in Florida, one of six states to enact legislation encouraging the technology. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority has applied for a grant of up to $12 million to design an automated vehicle roadway system, and there’s an Automated Vehicle Institute at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Brandes, Steinman and others see a seismic shift in automobile use. From 2.5 cars in every family driveway, they envision an on-demand, service-based scenario in which a user could order a vehicle like they would a taxi or a ride-hailing service, get the autonomous ride, send it somewhere else empty for another pick-up, and so on.
That would change how cities function, how home-buying decisions are made, the role of downtown parking garages and other aspects of an autocentric life we take for granted now.
Legislation passed in this spring’s session and recently signed by the governor requires metropolitan planning organizations to consider the future technology.
“Today, only about six or seven percent of cities are talking about autonomous vehicle technology,” said Brandes. “But if you say it’s going to be here in 10 or 20 years, shouldn’t it be part of the conversation? Shouldn’t we be thinking about what our cities are going to look like and start planning for this?”
Brandes speaks from experience. He’s had several rides in the passenger seat of driverless cars, including zipping around Sonoma Raceway in California at 120 mph.
“The first couple of minutes you’re terrified, the next couple of minutes you’re interested, and then you’re kind of bored for the rest of your life,” he said. “After a while, driving on autopilot isn’t that interesting. You have to build trust. People will ultimately trust that the system is going to do it better than they can do it, and that’s what I did.”