May 09, 2017

Lee County looks ahead to driverless car revolution

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

Published 2:56 p.m. ET May 1, 2017 | Updated 5:55 a.m. ET May 2, 2017

Cars that drop you at work then head home to take the kids to school are among scenarios that roadbuilders are looking at as self-driving vehicles make their way from the drawing board to the showroom

The biggest revolution in cars since Henry Ford cranked up the first automotive assembly line is dawning.

Just as putting automobiles within reach of everyday consumers brought mobility to the masses, cars wirelessly connected to the driving environment will mean changes in the way we arrange our lives, get around in our world and perhaps even choose where to live.

“Nobody knows what the future will be,” said Randy Cerchie, director of the Lee County Department of Transportation.

It’s a good bet that future will involve wireless connections among cars, people and infrastructure as boulevards and highways merge onto the connected universe of the information superhighway.

“Connected vehicles will be the first step,” Cerchie said. “Information from a controller box we have at each intersection, will be shooting data to a pedestrian, a vehicle or other infrastructure on the side of the road.”

Lee County and other highway building agencies now face making sure the roads can keep up with the vehicles that drive on them.

They’ll need to keep up with the technology. Florida will be an early proving ground for the changes ahead.

It is one of three states to receive U.S. Department of Transportation funding of up to $42 million for a pilot project linking people, roads and infrastructure on real, heavily traveled streets. The Tampa area project was funded for $17.7 million and has about $2 million left, according to a spokeswoman for the federal transportation agency. Florida is also one of six states in which a highway will be rigged to allow an autonomous, driverless car to be tested.

The connection between the automobile and the world around it, creating an electronic substitute for a driver’s eyes, ears and general awareness, will make the self-driving autonomous car possible.

“In my world, which is transportation, there are  autonomous vehicles, which is like your Google car, it  runs all by itself, it doesn’t talk to anybody, it just sees what’s around it and avoids it,” said Susan Chrzan, public affairs manager for the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority. “In my world, we’re not going to get a really good realization of all the benefits until we do connected and autonomous.”

The Lee Metropolitan Planning Organization is looking ahead to the region’s roadway needs for 30 years and longer into the future.

“We don’t know exactly how it will come down, that’s kind of why we were talking about it,”  said Don Scott, the MPO executive director.

“Nobody knows exactly how it gets rolled out, what the implications are,” Scott said. “There’s more work to be done on what might be future infrastructure needs.”

As the region’s planners look to road needs for 2040 and beyond, the impact of autonomous vehicles on traffic patterns and  volume is an open question. Some hope a more orderly traffic flow could mean fewer roads. Vehicles uniformly honoring the rules of the road has not really been a consideration for highway builders in the past.

“Our understanding more importantly is that it will take nearly 40 percent less asphalt – in other words, if I’m not driving the car, swerving all over the place, you don’t need the roads so wide,” Cerchie said. “We have some road widening projects scheduled on the 10, 15 year horizon – do we really need to do that, these are the kind of things we are wrestling with now.”

At Babcock Ranch, the 20,000-unit residential complex being built primarily in Charlotte County, planners plan to welcome driverless cars, which they say can result in smaller cars, narrower roads and more public space for things such as roadside cafes and restaurants.

More people could take to the road as people who choose not to drive begin to use autonomous vehicles.

Drivers who might otherwise give up licenses or stop driving at night due to age may be ferried about by the self-driving vehicle. People will be able to do other things in their vehicle while automatically being steered to work, so traffic jams could be less of an issue.

Or, maybe the modern two-car family will become obsolete.

“One of the things being talked about is maybe you have one car instead of two cars, you have a lot less cars out there,” Scott said. “The car takes you to work, then goes home and takes someone to school; it frees up land that we’d have to use for parking if the vehicle is going to pick up somebody else or is going out of the downtown to park elsewhere.”

However people respond to cars that drive themselves, road-building agencies will need to think about more than the art of spreading asphalt. High tech will need to be built in.

“You are going to move to the connected vehicle technology and then the final step to automated vehicle technology,” Cerchie said. “That takes a lot of individual servers and software so right now, we are making sure that we’re up on all the industry standards.”

Some of those steps are in place now. Timing of lights along heavily traveled intersections is increasingly handled remotely. An engineer at a work station can change the sequencing of traffic lights to reduce domino effect traffic jams and speed emergency response.

“When they get a 911 call, it goes through our system as well, so our system will know the path that it takes to get to the call,” Cerchie said. “It will ask the eight signals in front of it ‘hey are you going to be green when it gets there, if not do this.'”

A glimpse of the future will be seen within a year in Tampa.

The pilot program will link vehicles, the infrastructure around them and the pedestrians who get in in their way. It will be centered on the Selmon Extension, a reversible 1.6 mile toll road connecting the Leroy Selman Expressway to downtown Tampa.

“It’s almost in the implementation phase,” Chrzan said. “There will be a pedestrian app that you turn on when you’re walking and it will tell the cars where you are, if you are in the car’s way it will warn the car, it will also warn you if there is something you need to be paying attention to.”

About 1,500 cars will be equipped to participate in the test; the Tampa project will sprinkle a few hundred smartphone app-toting pedestrians into the mix.

Similar federal projects will be established in Wyoming and New York City.

Florida will be home to a test bed track, specifically designed to try out the autonomous vehicles in a real environment.

Florida’s Turnpike will build  a test track near Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland. The turnpike will test various ways to charge tolls while vehicles move at highway speed.

“The track is being constructed in partnership with the university, which will focus more on the autonomous vehicle testing angle,” said FDOT spokesman Chad Huff.

Legislators have made preparing to make development of riderless cars a state priority, stripping regulations from the fledgling industry.

A bill passed by the Legislature last year and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott requires the Lee MPO and similar agencies around the state to equip new roads to connect with vehicles.

It also provides a free pass on most regulations. No applications or state approvals are required to start testing autonomous vehicles. If a company has too many crashes in another state, and authorities elsewhere want to revoke permission for testing in their state, the carmaker could be allowed to test it in Florida.

The only requirements for testing here, according to the new law, are a $5 million insurance policy and a vehicle title stamped “autonomous.”  If there are crashes in a car that is modified by a third party, the vehicle’s manufacturer is not responsible unless a defect was present when the car came off the original factory assembly line.

The categories

The Society of Automotive Engineers has come up with categories of automated driving, ranging from zero, when the driver sees and does it all.  It is neither a timetable, nor a series of steps on the road to a driverless society. The levels indicate the extent to which humans turn over control to the car, beginning at the stage where a vehicle takes over some functions, but leaving the driver in ultimate control, to the day when autonomous vehicles can do it all.

At Level 1 some automation is seen as drivers get help with with things such as braking and cruise control.  Some automation slips in at Level 2. At higher steps, the vehicle takes more control, and relies less on human intervention.

By  Level 5 the the car does it all in the ultimate technological triumph.

The humans are just along for the ride.

USDOT Driverless Car Guidelines

Test cars to make sure minimal risk to others Make sure drivers know how to operate automated system  Create safe, simple and fast switch to driver control Provide clear indication that automated controls are on Include warning system when system malfunctions Uphold all federal safety requirements  Install black box to record automation role in crashes

Who gets sued in a crash? Manufacturer is not liable for problems created by after-market installations Automakers responsible for only manufacturing defects Whoever turns on the autopilot is considered the operator.