TAMPA — Gov. Rick Scott, the first governor in the nation to chance a ride in a sleek German car with fancy driverless technology, got a first-hand peek at what happens during a routine test drive: a glitch in which the Audi had to stop on a closed-down stretch of expressway while engineers worked to fix a problem with the sensors.
Still, the governor was upbeat about his little toot on the elevated lanes of the Selmon Expressway in the blazing heat Monday morning, saying he was impressed with the technology which cuts the driver out of the equation in stop-and-go highway traffic.
“It was a great ride,” he said after hopping out of the Audi A7, equipped with a wide array of sensors that keep it from rear-ending a vehicle in front of it and from swerving into vehicles to the side. “It starts and stops on its own. The distance between vehicles is tied to how fast you are going.”
He did not mention the glitch. Twice the car stopped because one of the 22 sensors on it wasn’t talking to the central computer. Scott got out of the car and hopped into one of the pace cars until the engineers fixed the problem. Then, the governor hopped back into the test car to finish the drive.
Scott said such real-world tests are welcome in Florida because it can lead to more jobs down the road. The state is tops already in tourism and seaport business and he wants to usher in a technology-based job market.
The test drives on Sunday and Monday were on the reversible lanes of the expressway between downtown and U.S. 301, which was closed to regular traffic. The stretch was designated in January as one of 10 “test beds” for the new technology and Audi officials picked Tampa in July to see how the system worked under extreme heat and in real-world conditions.
The system, which may be available within five years, is the first step toward a fully automated car, said Filip Brabec, director of product management with Audi of America. He said a fully automatic, driverless car could be available in 20 years.
The system is a marriage of German engineering with Silicon Valley computer wizardry, he said. Testing it on real roads, though without real traffic around it, gives engineers a chance to tweak the technology and the public relations department to get the word out about what Audi is working on, he said.
The technology is there, he said. The challenge is getting the humans used to the idea of the car driving itself.
“You are handing over the control of the vehicle,” he said.
The sporty Audi A7 took off around 10 a.m. with Scott in the passenger seat and engineers in the vehicle with him. Two other cars caravaned with the governor, one in front of the test car, one to the side. The scenario was a traffic jam on the highway in which the vehicles braked and accelerated at speeds up to 40 mph.
Two years, ago, Florida lawmakers passed a bill that allowed such test drives to take place on selected Florida highways, including the Selmon Expressway’s elevated lanes. The bill was authored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, who himself took a ride in the test car later in the day.
He said years ago, a member of his family died in a traffic accident and he’s been sensitive to highway safety issues since then. When he saw a video about this technology and that it could save lives, he sponsored the bill.
“I knew that was where I wanted to be,” he said. “I knew where Florida needed to be.”
He said the technology tested Sunday and Monday will save lives.
“It’s not just a special feature,” he said, “It’s a cure for a disease and now is the time for Florida to lead.”