May 13, 2016

New Florida Town Designed With Autonomous Cars In Mind

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

May 4th, 2016 by Steve Hanley

Babcock Ranch is a new community near the shores of the Coloosahatchie River east of Fort Meyers, Florida. It is being designed to be as sustainable as possible and to accommodate autonomous cars. In fact, the developer expects self driving cars to serve as the town’s public transportation system.

“We’re really looking closely at parking, the size of the streets, what ultimately that’s going to look like when you have driverless cars within the community,” says Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson and Partners, the developer of the new town. “It will change the design parameters. As these things become more commonplace, people may eventually turn to just one car because they know they can use an autonomous vehicle. So what do you do with the garage space eventually?”

The houses in Babcock Ranch will be near the downtown area so that people can walk or bicycle to work and run errands. It’s easier, Kitson says, to start from scratch with better infrastructure than to retrofit an existing suburb or city. “How you design your roads—thinking about pedestrian walkways and bike paths, if you’re making it walkable and bikeable and pedestrian-friendly—doing that from the beginning is much easier.”

Florida Power & Light is constructing a massive solar farm on the property. With 350,000 panels, it will generate enough electricity during the day to meet the needs of a community composed of 50,000 residents. At night, the local generating plant is powered by natural gas. As a result, Babcock Ranch will feature some of the greenest electricity in America.

Plans are underway to add energy storage so excess electricity created during the day can be captured and used to power the town after the sun goes down. “The holy grail for renewable energy is figuring out how to store it so you don’t need to turn to the grid at night,” Kitson says. “We’re talking to several companies about how we can do that, even at a neighborhood scale, almost like a micro-community of a system.”

Babcock Ranch will also be a testing ground for autonomous electric cars. An app similar to the one used by Uber will serve as the community’s public transit system, connecting it with other communities in the area. The developers are working with a company to build out that system, taking advantage of new legislation that makes Florida one of the most autonomous-friendly states in the country.

The lessons learned from designing and building Babcock Ranch may help other communities learn how to incorporate more pedestrian and bicycle friendly components into their own neighborhoods. They will also teach others how to incorporate autonomous cars into their infrastructure.

The only thing Syd Kitson may be wrong about is reducing the size of suburban garages. Most people have so much stuff crammed into them, there is no room left over to park an automobile inside anyway.