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Autonomous vehicles are hitting the street across the 23-county Corridor as leaders embrace the technology and plow through hurdles on the long road ahead to become a ‘crash-free’ society.

Transportation organizations, private companies and researchers at local universities are forging ahead in developing and implementing the most anticipated transportation technology since the flying cars of Orbit City seemed reasonable from 1962’s animated sitcom, The Jetsons.

For oneOrlando’s Luminar is taking grand steps to shape the industry. The technology improves upon the already available use of LiDAR to help close the gap on current accidents from lacking technology.

LiDAR is a sensor using lasers to measure distance and creates a 3D view of the environment. LiDAR is already in use by the industry, however, Luminar’s breakthrough improvement delivers 50 times better resolution and 10 times longer range … thereby increasing reaction time, according to the company. At least one major auto manufacturer agrees as the Luminar sensor is being used in the Toyota Research Institute’s latest self-driving test vehicle. 

“We moved swiftly and early to adopt the Luminar platform into our fleet, and as a result we’re rapidly advancing our program,” said James Kuffner, chief technology officer, Toyota Research Institute. “The level of data fidelity and range is unlike anything we’ve seen and is essential to be able to develop and deliver the most advanced automated driving systems.” 

Research continues in Gainesville as the University of Florida (UF) and its Transportation Institute (UFTI), the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) and the City of Gainesville partner to create a “smart testbed” on the UF campus and surrounding highway network.

The project, called I-STREETtests technology to improve safety and mobility. This is not a closed course facility, but one on busy streets with regular traffic. Proper connectivity between infrastructure, vehicles and people is essential for success. 

Lily Elefteriadou, Ph.D., is central to this work. She is director of UFTI and interim department chair of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UF. Other research includes an autonomous vehicle named the NaviGATOR, and the development of sensors for the City’s buses to alert passengers with bicycles if bus bike racks are filled before waiting to find that out themselves. 

There are several components of autonomous vehicles that don’t require the driver to pay attention, but we’re definitely not at the point where the driver can completely give up control,” said Elefteriadou. “The driver still needs to be aware. I think we are making slow and incremental steps to get there, and it’s a very promising area.”

The challenge comes in urban transportation. Highway driving has already proven to be an easier beast to tackle as more common straightaways, consistent speeds and fewer distractions allow self-driving vehicles to shine. However, traffic lights, pedestrians, scooters and more unpredictable driver behavior in densely populated areas require more connectivity and ‘foresight’ by the vehicles.

I think it’s going to take a while until the system is fully autonomous,” said Elefteriadou. Definitely not in the next 10 years. Twenty or 30 years might be a more realistic time frame.

Eric Hill, MetroPlan Orlando director of transportation system management and operations agrees. So, how is MetroPlan Orlando preparing for more autonomous vehicles on the road?

That’s the $64,000 question,” Hill said. “Because many organizations like MetroPlan Orlando are trying to wrap our arms, our minds, around the whole phenomena of autonomous vehicles. We are planning for something that we really don’t understand.”

Historically, MetroPlan Orlando has been able to rely on landuse data, vehicle miles traveled, vehicle trips and population growth to determine what the future will look like. Autonomous vehicles disrupt that picture. That is not to say steps aren’t being taken to clarify the vision, including scenario planning.

Here are some scenarios running through Hill’s mind: 

Potential scenario 1: Society becomes more dependent on Uber and Lyft-like companies and many may not own a car, but use autonomous vehicle services for transportation.

Potential scenario 2: I own an autonomous vehicle and it serves me and my family, and I allow it to serve others while I don’t need it, perhaps while I’m at work.

To better understand the likely use of autonomous vehicles, MetroPlan Orlando in partnership with the University of Central Florida (UCF) and FDOT is participating in a six-year grant: Advanced Transportation and Congestion Management Technology Deployment.

The grant will allow for testing of smart city transportation technology to provide recommendations for possible national models. It includes a pedestrian and bicycle collision avoidance system, traffic signal technology, trip planning technology, a sophisticated database for collected data, and autonomous and connected vehicles. All of this will occur in or around the UCF area in East Orlando.

While testing the technology is crucial, so is evaluating the public’s reaction, notes UF’s ElefteriadouAt the other end of The Corridor in Tampa Bay, reactions include some hesitations about a driverless car as noted by Melanie Roux, driver/trainer for HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority) HyperLINK. The rideshare program helps connect people to and from the Tampa Bay area’s transit system.

Roux hears I want a driver” when users of HART HyperLINK find out a Tesla is included in the fleet and could be on its way to pick them up, assuming the car drives itself. “They’re afraid to let the car drive them,” she said. “Once they see the car is safe, I think they will come around.”

To be clear, there is always a driver answering the call for HART HyperLINK. While the four Teslas in the fleet could be self-driving, the organization does not activate the feature. Vans without connectivity features also round out the fleet for the program.

Furthermore, HART plans to deploy an autonomous shuttle to connect a local transit center to nearby offices and residences in Downtown Tampa.

“Other states are just dipping their toe into the water of testing vehicles and we are jumping into deployment of vehicles,” said Florida Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) at the 2017 Florida Automated Vehicles Summit held in Tampa. “I think that’s meaningful. I think that’s powerful. I think that sets the tone that Florida is leading in this space and we are going to continue to lead for many years.”

Part of The Corridor’s ability to continue leadership in the space comes from the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida. CUTR works with local, statewide and other partners to evaluate, research and develop innovation in transportation.

“I have been working in this field for almost 30 years and at this moment the public’s imagination is completely captured by what is happening in transportation,” said Robert Bertini, Ph.D., CUTR director and USF professor of civil and environmental engineering. “This is an incredible opportunity … we shouldn’t miss this opportunity to make something exciting happen.

Bertini emphasizes the need to have an open mind and think of ways to take advantage of technological advancements to create communities where people want to live, work and play. And, in creating those opportunities, ensuring it’s done in an efficient and equitable manner to benefit all people.

CUTR is not only a center for research, but one for education as well. Bertini knows there is a need for education surrounding these ideas for transportation. More tools to share the realities of autonomous vehicles will help the public better understand the goal of this work. And the goal is safety  the number one priority in transportation. 

“When you look at the core vision of the Florida Department of Transportation, at the very top of the list is safety,” said David Gwynn, district secretary of transportation, FDOT District 7. “You’ve heard a lot in recent years about technology causing problems with safety … with distracted driving and other things, but this is the same thing that can deliver us toward a safer environment and reduce fatalities and injuries.”

As safety guides a common interest across the state, the technology requires extensive collaboration among varied fields, including occupational therapy, computer science and civil engineering, plus local and statewide partners. UF’s Elefteriadou sees the strength of FDOT alongside UF’s interdisciplinary approach at the transportation institute and the City of Gainesville’s collaborative mindset as assets for innovation for transportation.

As such, Elefteriadou credits the City as one that is forward-looking and willing to try new technology in the community. To continue development, she stresses a need for industry partners for further collaboration. The multi-year project seeks technology that is ready or almost ready for deployment to evaluate in the testbed. Joint development of technology, proof of concept and other opportunities for companies doing research are waiting in The Corridor.

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