Self-driving cars closer than you might think – Orlando Sentinel
State Sen. Jeff Brandes has ridden in self-driving cars three or four times, most recently at up to 120 mph on a test track in Sonoma County, Calif.
“You’re scared the first minute. You’re interested the next five. You are bored the rest of the time,” Brandes said.
Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was instrumental in passing a law in the state Legislature in 2012 to encourage the testing and study of so-called automated or autonomous vehicles in Florida.
From what Brandes said, he has witnessed in little more than three years the day when cars essentially drive themselves down Interstate 4 or Florida’s Turnpike is much closer than many people might think.
“We’re moving fast. It’s exciting,” he said, predicting widespread use within 10 to 15 years.
High-tech companies such as Google already have set out small autonomous cars on the open road in California, albeit with a person in the driver’s seat, just in case. Others are in the hunt, too, including Apple, BMW, Daimler, Audi and Tesla.
Beyond the coolness factor of sitting in a driverless car, transportation experts predict that autonomous vehicles will be much safer than those guided by humans. Computers, they say, do not get tired, lose focus, drift out of the lane at the wrong time or drink and drive.
“There’s just so many positives to people. Gee, I can protect myself from accidents,” said George Gilhooley, who runs the east Florida office of HNTB, a transportation consulting firm.
HNTB recently surveyed motorists across the country and in Central Florida on their attitudes about driverless cars. The study found people are optimistic about the technology and the future, with seven in 10 respondents in Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia counties saying such innovations would lead to increased safety.
Almost 60 percent of the 815 Central Floridians contacted – all of whom were 18 or older – believe such vehicles would lead to more informed occupants who are better aware of traffic conditions. The survey has a margin of error of 3.4 percent.
Gilhooley sees an evolution underway similar to what has happened throughout the history of the auto: innovation and upgrades are introduced in high-end cars, then drift down to more affordable models. An example, he said, is air bags, which now are standard equipment but initially were expensive add-ons.
Expensive, luxury cars have numerous features that figure into autonomous driving, including programs that automatically park the vehicle, cruise control that slows and speeds up according to the traffic and warning signals that an accompanying lane is occupied.
“It’s going to come in steps,” Gilhooley said.
The key, he said, will be communication between vehicles, allowing them to react to each other’s movements. He suspects souped-up car radios can do the trick.
Rich Biter, who oversees autonomous and automated auto efforts for Florida, said the state has set aside $500,000 to sponsor seminars for enthusiasts and industry officials. It has already held two, with the next one slated for Jacksonville in December.
The state also is working with officials at Miami-Dade International Airport on a project to have autonomous cars carry cut flowers from carriers to nearby warehouses.
The state is getting involved as well in helping build a test track in Lakeland where companies could tinker with self-driving cars.
“This is no longer science fiction,” Biter said. “It’s real. It’s happening.”
Eric Hill, who follows autonomous cars for MetroPlan Orlando, said the future is exciting, but 20 years could pass before self-driving vehicles are the norm and not the exception.
“We still haven’t had enough testing of vehicles in a private environment, much less public,” said Hill, director of transportation systems at MetroPlan, which sets transportation policy in Orange, Seminole and Osceola counties.
Gilhooley is more optimistic, saying self-driving cars could pop up on I-4 in 2021, when the massive $2.3 billion overhaul of the highway now underway is set to be complete.
“It’s hitting the real environment now,” he said. “It’s getting down to being affordable.”
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