March 13, 2017

Going driverless in Southwest Florida

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

PATRICIA BORNS , Published 5:11 p.m. ET March 10, 2017 | Updated 10:21 p.m. ET March 10, 2017

battery-powered, electric Easymile

A battery-powered, electric Easymile autonomous vehicle goes for a shake-down drive — minus a driver — on the interior roads of Babcock Ranch north of Lee County, Florida on Friday afternoon.(Photo: Patricia Borns/The News-Press)

Vasilas Karavidas maneuvers the bright red six-seater into the traffic lane Friday afternoon with his lap dog Alfa by his side.

But Karavidas isn’t driving the red mini van — there’s no steering wheel on this model — he’s programming it on his laptop computer.

The sight of a sandhill crane on this road is more likely than his Easymile AV (autonomous vehicle). But after a day tinkering and testing, the mini will hit the roads at Babcock Ranch this weekend, where it will take people around the property.

Programmer Vasilas Karavidas and his pooch Alfa

Programmer Vasilas Karavidas and his pooch Alfa take a break Friday from programming his company’s Easymile autonomous vehicle to take passengers on tours of Babcock Ranch, a new solar city outside Lee County, Florida. (Photo: Patricia Borns/The News-Press)

The point of the demo goes far beyond a real estate tour or even the future residents of this solar-powered Southwest Florida community.

“Cars are one of the most underused pieces of property,” says John Lambert, a research associate at University of Central Florida’s institute for simulation and training.  “You might use it one hour out of 24. The rest of the time you pay for the insurance, the mechanic, while it sits there.”

Lambert is helping Babcock developer Kitson and Partners figure out the right business model to encourage the use of AV services instead of car ownership.

“How will people want to contract or buy it?” Lambert asks. “There are a lot of theories out there. We’re letting real people use the services, and we’ll get real user market data to prove or disprove the theories.”

If this and other AV programs are successful, people might lease or subscribe to an on-call fleet, like Uber without the driver. Instead of two cars, they might own one or none, Lambert says.

The technology behind AVs isn’t new, he points out. It was developed more than 15 years ago by the Department of Defense to remove the need for drivers in hazardous situations. If you’ve taken an airport or Disney World shuttle, you may have used a similar application.

Florida has already passed legislation that would allow driverless cars on its byways. The question for everyone from businesses to Lee County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has scheduled a discussion on the topic later this month, is how.

Transdev CIO Neal Hemenover, who’s helping Babcock with its AV program, sees the vehicles as one in a portfolio of transportation options rather than a total car substitute.

“Transdev is moving about 4,000 people a day In AVs,”  says Hemenover, who’s company is involved in every form of transportation from city buses to rail, taxi and execu-car services. “In Rotterdam (the Netherlands), the local transit authority runs driverless shuttles in the middle of the city. Civaux (a nuclear power utility) in France uses them to transport employees to its different campuses.”

The AVs allowed Rotterdam to create a new a transport hub without building new infrastructure, he says. It was able to dedicate one lane of its roadway to the AVs, similar to a bike lane. The riders pay their normal fee.

The French city of Lyon launched the world’s first driverless bus service last year.

AV technology is still young enough that it’s being rolled out under controlled conditions to assure safety.

For now, Babcock will offer two- and  four passenger AVs that would come to the house and take residents to the town square or local school. A larger shuttle would take parties to dinner. Whether it will be free or for pay is still to be determined.

The point is to make the transportation fleet sustainable. With one AV program under its belt, Kitson and Partners could offer a similar service in other planned communities or in commercial centers like the amateur sports complex it hopes to develop in Lee County.

Morning turns to afternoon, and Karavidas gets the little red Easy Rider to run the course perfectly.

It might only be a quarter of a mile at less than 30 mph. But for Southwest Florida, it’s change at warp speed.