January 06, 2016

Who needs steering wheels? West Palm firm plugging automated cars here.

By: Vicki Parsons - IT

By Tony Doris – Palm Beach Post Staff Writer


Push a call button and the car shows up at your door in 40 seconds.

No steering wheel. No gas or brake pedal. No driver. Door opens, you sit down.

“Take me to Chili’s,” you tell it and away you go.

Thirty seconds into the ride, the menu pops up on a screen, then a server to take your order.

You arrive at the restaurant and just as you’re seated the meal is served, since the car has communicated your estimated arrival time. Before your first bite the car is off to its next assignment.

That’s the scenario described by Richard Brockway, a West Palm Beach real estate developer with a lifelong passion for cars, and now for the self-driving kind that auto experts say will be within the grasp of consumers in two or three years.

Brockway and two partners — Google car adviser and former General Motors research and development chief Larry Burns and former Gov. Jeb Bush — formed Three B Partners LLC and its affiliate, Maghicle Driverless LLC, in 2013, to pave the way for a system of shared, driver-less cars — starting in Palm Beach County. (Jeb’s been off on assignment this year, Brockway says.)

To get the concept, think of Google as Boeing, and Maghicle as airport and airline.

The technological competition has yet to play out. Brockway sees it as a battle between conventional carmakers and pure tech companies.

Conventional automakers are counting on an evolutionary path, maintaining their traditional business models while their cars gain autonomy, advance by advance. By contrast, Maghicle favors the approach being taken by Google, Apple and other tech companies — rethinking the car from scratch and doing away with steering wheels from the start.

The company hopes to shift the public mindset away from car ownership, or at least away from owning a second car for starters, to encourage reliance on shared cars, where you pay a monthly fee and the car shows up when you summon it.

No maintenance, no repair costs, no insurance, no washing and waxing.

Another plus, Brockway says: Your 14-year-old can take a car and so can a 90-year-old who otherwise might not feel comfortable about driving. That means more business for shops and restaurants, he says. There’d also be profit in the ads that might play in the cars for their captive audiences.

Brockway, part of the Kitson & Partners real estate team that developed West Palm’s luxurious Ibis community, says Maghicle hopes to roll out its shared cars there, where he lives, and in other northern Palm Beach County developments, as a starting line for nationwide service.

He hopes to do the same at Kitson’s Babcock Ranch project near Fort Myers, a property the size of Manhattan that’s under development as an environmentally sensitive “city of tomorrow,” he says.

The idea is to help people get from Point A to Point B “enjoyably,” he stresses. Part of that enjoyment, he says, is not having to invest in a car that sits idle 99 percent of the time. “Ownership is crazy.”

His hope is that people will at first give up their second car in favor of a shared one. The Maghicle fleet would at first have cars parked in centralized locations but eventually they would position themselves in areas where their computers calculate they are most likely to be called upon. The cars would learn.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s Florida Automated Vehicle program has been gearing up for cars that put the “auto-” in automobile. The program’s website sees the technology as transforming the transportation scene while vastly reducing the number of injuries and deaths on Florida roads each year. A half-dozen Florida universities are studying various aspects of the technology, from a Florida State University on its potential impact on senior citizen mobility, to University of Florida research on policy implications of unleashing the cars on public roadways.

From self-parking to crash-prevention braking, some of the features of these future cars already have found their way into consumer hands. Google cars have put in more than 1.3 million miles of testing and could be on the market by 2018, according to Brockway.

At this stage, much of the public remains unaware the technology is just around the corner. That’s a big part of his job now, spreading the word.

Ask him what conversation we’ll be having about the technology five years from now and he’s quick to reply: “You’ll be saying, ‘I’m really annoyed because it took 50 seconds for the car to arrive instead of 40 seconds.’”