Autonomous vehicles in Florida: Open arms, no hands
In 2012, then-state Rep. Jeff Brandes sponsored legislation to allow testing of self-driving cars on Florida’s roads — the first step toward a day when a car’s occupants might enter a destination into the vehicle’s computer and then sit back and ride, hands-off, as it drives them there safely, choosing the quickest route and adhering to traffic laws along the way. The car might then park itself nearby or head to its base, returning when the riders need to go home.
The legislation was noteworthy: At the time, the only other state that had legalized autonomous-car testing was Nevada.
The Legislature, which passed Brandes’ 2012 bill unanimously, doubled down in 2016. Working with Audi and Google, Brandes — now a state senator and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transporation, Tourism and Economic Development — authored legislation that made Florida the first state to allow fully autonomous cars on public roads.
The 2016 bill, which also passed unanimously, eliminated the requirement for a backup human driver and expanded the legal use of autonomous vehicles beyond testing.
The law requires only that a car have a remote operator who can receive alerts of a technical failure. The car must also be able to stop itself in an emergency. The law also requires Florida’s major cities to take driverless technology into account when creating long-range transportation plans.
Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Transportation began hosting annual autonomous vehicle summits to further position the state as a leader in embracing the technology.
Why the full-throttle rush toward driverless? Brandes and other AV proponents speak of potential benefits ranging from easing traffic flow to lowering insurance costs, converting parking lots to green spaces, increasing mobility for the state’s aging population and making roads safer by removing the human element from driving. Some claim driverless cars could eventually reduce Florida’s nearly 3,000 annual motor vehicle accident deaths by 90% or more.
“We’re trying to get to zero fatalities. These technologies are probably our first real shot at making that happen,” says Paul Steinman, the Florida Department of Transportation’s district 7 secretary, covering Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.
For at least the short term, Florida’s embrace of AV technology is serving as an economic development tactic to attract automotive research and development — and ultimately, tech jobs — to Florida. Gov. Rick Scott emphasized that goal in 2014 after taking a test ride in a driverless Audi Sport Quattro Laserlight on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway in Tampa.
Scott’s vehicle cruised along a 10-mile stretch mostly under software control. When a vehicle ahead slowed, the sedan sensed the change and automatically adjusted its speed to avoid a collision. An Audi engineer sat behind the wheel, hands-off, as a precaution.
After the ride, Scott highlighted the state’s desire to become a driverless test lab. “I hope that everyone that thinks about doing this moves to Florida and brings their research here.”
And indeed, test projects have emerged all around the state as Audi, Ford, General Motors, Google, Tesla, Toyota and more than a dozen other large companies invest heavily in driverless cars. At least partially because of the state’s legal stance, industry and government have begun testing the road-readiness of these new cars in Florida.
But so far, most of the basic research functions remain at or near the companies’ headquarters in California and Michigan.
The global autonomous vehicles market is expected to reach $65 billion by 2027, according to Market Research Future, a market research firm.
The road ahead
Aside from one 2012 political attack ad against Brandes, organized opposition to driverless cars in Florida is non-existent. The ad, paid for by a group called Committee to Protect Florida, suggested that driverless-car testing poses a safety risk to pedestrians. For the moment, public opinion toward autonomous vehicles is positive: A 2015 survey by Florida State University found that Floridians generally hold favorable attitudes toward self-driving cars, with at least half saying they’re comfortable enough to ride in an autonomous vehicle, though seniors tend to be a bit more wary.
That could change, however — some fear a political backlash as the technology impacts the jobs of truckers, cab drivers and other workers.
And for a number of other reasons, widespread use of driverless vehicles on Florida roads appears to be at least a decade away.
Experts say there is still much work to do in preparing roads and communications systems for self-driving cars. And while autonomy holds great promise for improving safety, the technology is still imperfect. Last spring, on U.S. 27 Alternate near Williston, a Tesla Model S, operating in self-driving “autopilot” mode, failed to distinguish between the white side of a tractor-trailer and the sky. The Tesla crashed into the truck as the truck crossed in front of it, killing the Tesla driver, a 40-year-old entrepreneur from Ohio.
Tesla says it has since upgraded its software to prevent autopilot-enabled cars from making the same mistake. In January, federal regulators pointed to human error, saying the autopilot system was never meant to handle situations involving crossing traffic.
Other technical challenges involve wireless communication and security. Driverless cars will need to be able to reliably communicate with each other in traffic, requiring more bandwidth capacity. And without data security, autonomous cars will be at risk from hackers.
In addition to the technical challenges, driverless cars face a host of legal and regulatory issues. The federal government has yet to weigh in with national regulations, and questions about liability remain. Who’s to blame, for example, if a self-driving car gets into an accident?
“No system is foolproof. There will still be accidents,” says insurance attorney Ronald Kammer, a partner at law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson in Coral Gables. “There will still be litigation. Was the self-driving mechanism working properly? If not, financial responsibility will fall upon the manufacturer and supplier. The driver may also have some responsibility.”
Cost is another challenge: The sensors, cameras, radars and other technical features that make autonomy possible are expensive, adding tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a car.
Initially, autonomy will come in the form of driverless shuttles in well-controlled settings, such as college campuses, mega-malls and hospital complexes, says Ananth Prasad, who was Florida’s transportation secretary from 2011-15. Prasad now heads the national transportation practice of engineering firm HNTB. Already, some cities and companies in Florida plan to begin testing autonomous shuttles for public transportation. In five years, Prasad says, we may also see driverless cars for commercial ride-share services.
In the meantime, the only autonomous vehicles Floridians are likely to see will be test vehicles, including some trucks. The 2016 law clears the way for tests of twotruck platoons on the state’s highways — a kind of cruise control in which a group of trucks is linked electronically into a tight convoy, with each truck’s acceleration and braking automated, but with the drivers still steering.
Dean Bushey, who teaches a robotics and computer-programming course for autonomous vehicles at Florida Polytechnic University, says true driverless technology might not be broadly affordable for another two decades. “By 2030, it will be available at a medium premium — like a Lexus,” he suggests. “By 2035 or 2040, it will be available as a general upgrade.”
Among the 11 states that have enacted autonomous vehicle legislation, Florida has positioned itself at the permissive end of the regulatory spectrum. Among the other states, Michigan is similar to Florida, while California has taken a more restrictive stance. In California, for example, autonomous vehicle developers must get a testing permit to operate on public roads, have a certified driver, be able to pay damages and meet various other requirements.
Last year, Florida enacted legislation that clears the way for tests of two-truck platoons on the state’s highways. Software links the trucks wirelessly and allows them to follow each other closely, creating a draft effect and improving fuel efficiency. Each truck’s acceleration and braking is automated, but the driver still steers. Experts say the fuel savings can be significant. The new law sets aside, for test purposes, a requirement that trucks maintain a minimum following distance of 300 feet.
“It’s like super-intelligent cruise control,” says Carl Crane, a mechanical engineering professor and director of the Center for Intelligent Machines and Robotics at the University of Florida. “A lot of people picture giant trucks with nobody in them, but it’s not that at all.”
UF is working on a platooning study for the state Department of Transportation, and testing could begin next year, Crane says.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) plans to start testing an autonomous commuter shuttle in downtown Tampa later this year. The Florida Department of Transportation gave HART $1 million to develop the driverless shuttle service. Two electric vehicles will run downtown at low speeds along a 0.6-mile route restricted to buses and other public transit.
Florida Poly is partnering with the state Department of Transportation to build a facility in Polk County to test autonomous-vehicle technologies. The state wants to create a high-tech hub for the research, development and testing of emerging transportation technologies related to tolling, intelligent transportation systems (ITS) and automated and connected vehicles. The project includes a 2.25-mile oval track on a 400-acre site near the Polk Parkway in Polk County. Work begins this spring.
Meanwhile, Florida Poly students in a new course called “Autonomous Systems and Self-Driving Vehicles” are learning to program remote-controlled scale-model cars to zip around autonomously.
Each electric car is fitted with the hardware it needs to drive itself: On-board computer, sensors, cameras and radars. The students, working in teams of six, must build the software that ultimately will enable the cars to drive in a straight line, stop at a red light and avoid obstacles. For their final exam, students will release the cars to race on a makeshift track and to navigate around obstacles in a small model city.
Dean Bushey, an assistant professor of computer science, developed the course — believed to be the only one of its kind in Florida — with help from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which provided the syllabus and project work. Bushey, a former Air Force pilot, says student feedback has been positive. “There are very few companies with expertise in autonomous vehicles, and within those companies there are very few people with expertise in the field,” he says. “New grads make $65,000 a year, and 10 years down the road, they can expect to make at least $200,000.”
In 2015, Tampa won a $17-million contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation to study how wireless communications technology can prevent crashes and traffic jams.
The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) will equip about 1,800 cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians with technology that lets them “talk” to each other and their surroundings — alerting them, for example, when a traffic light is about to turn red or a person is entering a crosswalk.
THEA plans to deploy the pilot project in downtown Tampa next year. The Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida will gather and analyze data.
The Jacksonville Transportation Authority is looking to introduce autonomous commuter shuttles to the city’s aging Skyway elevated rail system. JTA executives say the autonomous shuttles will be able to leave the monorail pathway and merge onto roads and dedicated lanes and, thus, expand service to other parts of the city. In February, the authority’s board voted to move into the development phase of the project, dubbed the Ultimate Urban Circulator.
In January, the U.S. Department of Transportation named central Florida one of 10 proving grounds nationwide for self-driving technology.
The Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership — a new venture between the city of Orlando, public universities and other organizations — hopes the designation will help bring automotive research and development to the region. Potential test beds include:
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which offers a contained road network for testing in extreme weather and unusual situations.
NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which offers a contained road network for testing in extreme weather and unusual situations.
I-4, S.R. 540 and S.R. 528. There also could be driverless buses in downtown Orlando and simulations for autonomous vehicles at UCF, officials say.
The Florida Department of Transportation has initiated at least a half-dozen research projects statewide to prepare for driverless and connected vehicles. Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, for example, have manually driven a vehicle equipped for autonomous travel to gather data and study whether AVs can be used to inspect highways and perform other roadside tasks. A team at Florida Atlantic University has looked at how submersibles might help with bridge inspections. And at the University of Central Florida, the Institute for Simulation and Training has explored which methods might be best for sending automated traffic alerts to drivers in connected vehicles.
This fall, Babcock Ranch, an 18,000-acre master-planned community in Charlotte and Lee counties, plans to offer property tours aboard a driverless shuttle bus. The 12-person shuttle, made without a steering wheel or brake pedal, will transport visitors between the sales office and model homes.
The community’s developer, Palm Beach Gardens-based Kitson & Partners, plans to eventually add a fleet of on-demand driverless vehicles to transport residents within Babcock Ranch.
“We think this is a great way to get around,” says Larry Burns, a consultant to Babcock Ranch and a former head of research and development for General Motors. “It’s very convenient for teenagers without a driver’s license or older people who are at a stage in their life where they prefer not to drive.”
Driverless vehicles would reshape cities.
Two years ago, a team of professors and students from Florida State University’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning was asked to study how cities might look and function if driverless cars become universally adopted. They interviewed city planners, engineers, public officials and professionals in the driverless car industry and identified six ways in which autonomous vehicles could reshape urban infrastructure and roadway design.
1.Smaller rights of ways: Cars that move with robotic precision won’t need extra-wide lanes, guardrails, shoulders and medians. “Lanes will only need to be as wide as the vehicles driving on them,” the report says. Assuming vehicle sizes stay the same, lane widths could be reduced by as much as 20%.
2.Drop-off and pick-up areas: Fully autonomous cars will be able to drop off riders at their destinations, find a parking spot and return to pick them up. Designated drop-off and pick-up areas that enable passengers to come and go quickly will figure prominently in building and site designs.
3.Fewer traffic signs and signals: The new cars will “talk” to each other via wireless technology, sharing their speed, location, steeringwheel position, brake status and other data. Sensors embedded in roads and mounted on surrounding infrastructure will provide instant traffic updates and routing information. Ultimately, wireless communications technology will replace traditional signs and signals.
4.Pedestrian and bike crossings: The prospect of driverless cars traveling in free-flowing networks, automatically sensing and responding to the movements of one another, poses challenges for non-motorized traffic. Without red lights and stop signs, people out walking or biking could be left waiting at busy intersections for a break in traffic, the report says. Potential solutions include dedicated crossing periods and tunnels or bridges for bicyclists and pedestrians.
5.Less parking: With a combination of driverless cars and a shared payas- you-go transport system, vehicles will stay in circulation rather than park, continuously picking up and dropping off passengers, and will drive themselves to remote staging areas for maintenance, fuel and storage.
6.Redevelopment opportunities: Driverless cars offer the potential to free up space for new residential and commercial developments, as well as parks and plazas. City blocks no longer will feature surface parking lots, street-side parking and traffic lights, the report says. “In their place, we may find drop-off lanes, pedestrian and bicycle amenities, in-fill development, and safer, less-cluttered intersections.”
The Uber Factor
One very interested party in the evolution of autonomous vehicles is Uber. The company is testing self-driving cars with backup human drivers on the streets of Pittsburgh and Tempe, Ariz., highlighting the potential safety benefits. It also has a strong financial incentive to develop robot cabs, since most of its revenue now goes to contract drivers.
In December, after clashing with California regulators over a plan to test driverless cars in San Francisco, Uber moved its 16 self-driving Volvos to Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey publicly welcomed the fleet “with open arms and wide open roads.”
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who hopes to see Florida become Uber’s next hub for autonomous-car testing, reached out to the company via social media. “Hey @ Uber, unlike California we in Florida welcome driverless cars — no permit required,” he tweeted.
Uber, which has no test vehicles in Florida, has fought a series of battles with counties in Florida over how much it should be regulated. The company is now trying to leverage Florida’s autonomous-car push as an opening to get statewide, proride- sharing legislation passed. Only Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Hillsborough counties, as well as Gainesville, Tallahassee and Panama City Beach, have laws that Uber considers ride-share-friendly.
Colin Tooze, Uber’s director of public affairs, says that before the company can even consider testing driverless cars in Florida, it needs ridesharing to be legal across the state.
This spring, Brandes introduced an Uber-backed bill seeking to do just that. Ultimately, Brandes says, “I see autonomous vehicles spreading around Florida like electricity.”