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“Look Ma, No Hands!” The Age of Autonomous Vehicles

Driverless cars have arrived, and Central Florida is taking the lead in the research, development and testing of emerging transportation technologies.

Imagine a world in which you can get into your car, enter a destination and sit back and relax, letting the vehicle do all the work. No more worrying about how badly other people drive, whether or not you are too tired to get behind the wheel or the horrendous Central Florida traffic. Transportation of the future, both public and private, will be totally autonomous, meaning the human element will be taken out of the driving equation. It will be safe and efficient, reducing road fatalities and congestion. And here is the really cool part… the shift towards intelligent transportation systems has already begun, and Central Florida is taking the lead in making it a reality.

Central Florida was recently selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to be a proving ground for autonomous vehicles, making it one of the nation’s premier clusters for research and development of automated vehicle technology across all modes of travel. The region will provide the foundation for this new technology and its safe testing, demonstration and deployment.

The Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership (AVP) was established as one of 10 areas selected in the country for AV testing. The partnership includes regional agencies and entities that have demonstrated leadership and significant contributions towards transportation. Research and simulation has already begun at the University of Central Florida and Florida Polytechnic University. In fact, SunTrax — a $90 million, 400-acre, high-tech test track that will simulate urban scenarios — recently broke ground on the campus of Florida Poly. Safety and policy compliance review will be managed by the College of Law within Florida A&M University-Florida State University (FAMU-FSU) College of Engineering. The Roadway Network and Swamp Works Lab at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center will provide an additional testing ground for extreme weather and harsh road conditions. Other partners include Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, Central Florida Expressway, the City of Orlando and Lynx, which will be used to test automated shuttles. Other committed supporters include MetroPlan Orlando, Orange County, Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, Osceola County, Polk County, Space Coast Transportation Planning Organization and Florida Department of Transportation.


“It’s also an economic engine, and we want businesses and entrepreneurs to know that when it comes to autonomous vehicles, we’re open for business.” – Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti


“Our state policies for autonomous vehicles are very progressive,” said Steven Martin, District 5 Secretary, Florida Department of Transportation. “We’ve created a positive environment for both the tech and auto industries. Florida is also unique in that our roads are relatively flat and straight, which makes it the perfect proving ground for this technology.”

Martin stresses that a world with autonomous vehicles is already here. Possible corridors for these vehicles are already being scouted, and partnerships have already been forged to ensure Central Florida stays ahead of the game and is engaged up front so it can benefit moving forward.

“There are huge economic benefits associated with this,” explained Martin. “We’re already a magnet for high-tech companies, and more will come as established companies move here and start-ups spring up to accommodate autonomous vehicle research, development and application. In addition to the obvious transportation benefits, it will also create more high-paying jobs, spark innovation, create opportunities for outlying businesses and improve infrastructure.”

The Crown Jewel of Test Tracks

SunTrax, the result of a long-term partnership between the Florida Department of Transportation (led by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise) and Florida Poly, is poised to be the envy of all other test tracks. The construction of the 2.25-mile oval track will allow for the testing of connected and automated technology such as lane departure and vehicle platooning. The 200-acre infield facility will include a learning laboratory, a simulated city center, suburban and rural roadways, interconnected signalized intersections, interchange ramps, roundabouts, various types of pavement and more. It will provide a safe environment for testing these emerging technologies before they are deployed in live traffic.

“SunTrax will be the first step in building the surrounding area into a destination for the development of this quickly emerging and advancing automotive technology,” said Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti, executive director of Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. “It’s designed for evolution, with hundreds of adjacent acres available for future development that will support the growth of this industry.”

SunTrax represents an important piece of the puzzle in creating a high-tech hub for these emerging transportation technologies, and as the track progresses, it will provide Florida Poly students with a unique opportunity to participate in the testing and development of transportation technologies and innovations.

“Automated vehicles incorporate many aspects of STEM, including computer science, sensor integration, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, code writing and more,” said Dean Bushey, Ph.D., professor of Computer Science at Florida Poly. “We have several research projects underway in which students are doing applied research and coming up with solutions that will feed the body of knowledge for automated vehicles. This equates to a healthy, quality education for our students.”

The school’s AV contingent is working with the developer of the proposed Harmony Lake Eloise community, near Winter Haven, to create a shuttle for future residents. Several students are also devising plans for Jacksonville to replace its monorail with driverless transport. Other current research projects include building an autonomous, solar-powered golf cart, creating an autonomous bicycle, working with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to test vulnerabilities in police drones, and the creation of a “follow me” drone that long-distance runners can use.

Bushey, a former colonel who flew autonomous vehicles in the Air Force, understands this technology will be incorporated in phases and over the course of years, but he is encouraged by the role Florida Poly has taken and excited about the opportunities SunTrax will bring to faculty, students and the state of Florida as a whole.

“This is an exciting time,” he said. “We’re encouraging innovation and creating incredible opportunities for our students. Autonomous transportation technology is disruptive to the status quo but ultimately transformative, and we need to embrace it.”


“This isn’t just about technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “It’s about technology that will enhance the quality of life of millions of people.” – Steve Martin


Looking Ahead

When Steven Martin and other members of the FDOT first looked at autonomous vehicles as a practical evolution of transportation and mobility, they thought infrastructure changes would be substantial, but as time has passed, new technologies are reducing the need for these changes. The timeline on when the various levels of autonomy will be realized constantly changes, but as long as a road has good pavement and pavement markings, the technology can be deployed in existing infrastructures.

“Our region is forward thinking on this, but there are still stigmas associated with this technology in other regions; they still aren’t convinced it can be done safely,” said Martin. “The truth is, autonomous driving is much safer, but we need to ensure it’s implemented safely and in an unobtrusive manner. These new vehicles will also need to share roads with traditional vehicles for a while, as well as with cyclists and pedestrians.”

Gutierrez-Scaccetti stresses we must be patient, as this is a long-term, game-changing proposition. “We’re positioning ourselves to have the infrastructure to support this,” she said. “Strategically, this is our goal. This is an educational engine, and it’s going to give young kids in our region the opportunity to learn these skills and excel in an exciting industry. It’s also an economic engine, and we want businesses and entrepreneurs to know that when it comes to autonomous vehicles, we’re open for business. We’re providing an infrastructure that’s supported by sharp young minds and an innovative outlook. ”

Martin echoes these sentiments, adding that this is more of a holistic endeavor than anything else. “This isn’t just about technology for technology’s sake,” he said. “It’s about technology that will enhance the quality of life of millions of people.”


SAE International’s Automated Vehicle Classifications

Level 0: Automated system issues warnings but has no vehicle control.

• Level 1 (hands on): Driver and automated system share control over the vehicle. Examples include adaptive cruise control, parking assistance and lane keeping assistance. The driver must be ready to retake full control at any time.

• Level 2 (hands off): The automated system takes full control of the vehicle (accelerating, braking and steering). The driver must monitor the driving and be prepared to intervene if the automated system fails to respond properly. Contact between hand and wheel is often mandatory.

• Level 3 (eyes off): The driver can safely turn his or her attention away from the driving tasks. The vehicle will handle situations that call for an immediate response, like emergency braking. The driver must still be prepared to intervene within some limited time, specified by the manufacturer, when called upon by the vehicle to do so.

• Level 4 (mind off): Same as level 3, but no driver attention is ever required for safety (i.e. the driver may safely go to sleep or leave the driver’s seat). Self-driving is supported only in limited areas or under special circumstances, such as traffic jams. Outside of these areas or circumstances,  the vehicle must be able to safely abort the trip (i.e. park the car).

• Level 5 (wheel optional): No human intervention is required. An example would be a robotic taxi.

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About the author

Jack Roth

A veteran journalist and author, Jack Roth is managing editor of i4 Business magazine. Jack has been writing about Central Florida business, technology and economic development for more than 20 years.

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