Driverless car technology not too far off and Tampa wants to lead the way

11/15/13 Janelle Irwin
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday | Listen to this entire show:
Tags: autonomous vehicle, automated vehicle, driverless vehicle, Jeff Brandes, CUTR, USF


A camera in this Lexus steering wheel keeps its eyes on yours and alerts drivers when they aren't paying attention to the road.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Cars that drive themselves could be parking in regular driveways sooner than you think. During an autonomous vehicle conference in Tampa this concluding Friday, The Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF (CUTR) announced its new Automated Vehicle Institute.

Outside of the downtown Tampa Mariott overlooking the Hillsborough River, a $90,000 red Lexus sat in a grassy plot. At first glance it was just another fancy car, but take a closer look and this tricked out piece of technology could practically drive away all on it’s own. Cody Solomon is a technology specialist for Lexus.

“You have three pre-set distances you can set your car to follow behind the car in front of you. So, you’re set to go 70, the car in front of you is going 65. You’ll reach that car, approach them at the safe distance you have set, the car will automatically decelerate down to 65 to match the car in front of you and actually slow the car to a complete stop.
If that car stops all the way, your car will completely stop. If they get out of your way, you’ll go back up to your set speed.

That feature is called laser cruise control. Combine that with another nifty tool and a driver doesn’t have to pay much attention at all. Lane Keep Assist keeps the car centered in its lane.

“Again, it’s cameras and it uses the lines, the marked lines in the roads, so if the road doesn’t have very well marked or visible lines or no lines at all it’s kind of useless, but there’s no added infrastructure for it to work, it’s already using just the lines in the lanes.”

The features aren’t intended to create a situation where the driver behind the wheel can read and send emails or paint their toenails. That’s why another automated feature alerts drivers who aren’t paying attention. A camera in the steering wheel notices when a person behind the wheel isn’t looking straight ahead. Their seat belt tightens, a light flashes and an alert rings out through the car’s speakers. But if all that commotion doesn’t get the driver’s eyes back on the road, Soloman says there’s another feature that looks out for pedestrians.

“At 25 mph and below, the car will actually come to a complete stop on its own without any driver input. So, say you’re in a parking lot and somebody walks out in front of you and you’re not paying attention, the car will actually react and stop the car.”

This type of package is more available than people realize. Of course the car Solomon showed off was knocking on six figures, but next to that was a Ford Explorer ringing in somewhere around $40,000. And the autonomous packages themselves are only separated in cost by $100. Lexus offers their package as an add-on to any of their cars for $6500 – Ford for $6400. Both cars also offer a parking assist features. The Lexus feature serves more as a guide, while Ford’s parallel parking is completely hands off.

“They won’t completely parallel park themselves. Some of it – you’re going to be in control of basically the gas and the break pedal and the gear shift, but the steering wheel, your hand’s free.”

But even with all of these handy features, innovators still want more. Jason Bittner is the director for CUTR, the USF group launching the Automated Vehicle Institute. He estimates that by around 2030, half of the cars on the road could be fully autonomous.

“The Fords, the Toyota, the Nissan sort of started the ball rolling by saying they would have a vehicle on the street [by] 2020 that could operate at level four automation which is [a] completely automated vehicle. Tesla announced that they have a goal of driving 90% of the miles in an automated fashion by 2019 and Google in 2012 had said that within five years that they’ll have their after market package available at a price point that is much more appropriate for the average citizen.”

Google is perhaps the most well known for their driverless vehicle that has so far clocked more than a half million miles of fully automated driving. This idea excites transportation planners who look at the emerging technologies as a way to reduce traffic accidents.

“Secretary [Ananth] Prasad yesterday mentioned the horrific crash on 75 in Paynes Praire last year that was caused by limited visibility due to a fog smoke mixture. We can eliminate that with sensing technology. So, those are some of the immediate wins that are in the safety area.”

That crash claimed the lives of 11 people after a 20 car pile up closed the low stretch of highway just before Gainesville. According to speakers at the conference, driver error accounts for between 80-95% of all crashes. Heads of state transportation agencies like the Florida Department of Transportation’s Paul Steinman hope to cut back on traffic fatalities to the point where one day, there aren’t any.

“So, if we can find ways to reduce those numbers of human error interactions that we have, you ultimately make the roads safer and that also allows us to do things like narrow lanes. Our lanes are designed to allow for a certain amount of human error – also headways between vehicles. If we could tighten those headways up you could increase capacity, increase the safety. The other big issue that, as transportation engineers we have is with our growing populations, we’re basically running out of room to expand our system. So, we need to find ways to more effectively utilize the system.”

There’s also the hope that automated cars will reduce traffic flows. Some drivers’ habits in rush hour traffic include racing to catch up to a line of stalled traffic, weaving in and out of lanes just to gain a few car lengths and exploiting merge lanes. Ask any expert and they’ll say that behavior contributes to congestion by keeping traffic flows from maintaining a consistent speed. An automated car wouldn’t do that. But because the cars would use GPS technology, Steinman said it could also spread some of the traffic out.

“So, in other words, if you’re traveling down 275, for example, and your autonomous vehicle says that traffic is starting to slow down below the posted speed, but if you exit at this particular exit you can take one of the alternative routes and actually save time, save fuel.”

There’s also talk of using autonomous vehicle technology for cab services. In that concept, a phone app would allow riders to schedule pick up and drop off times where they would climb into a waiting Taxi that didn’t have a driver. Looking even further down the road, owners of driverless cars could theoretically be dropped off by their dutiful car leaving it to park somewhere else. CUTR’s Bittner said the technology could cut back on parking needs, especially in cities struggling with finding space.

“If I was giving investment advice, parking ramps are not something that I would put a lot of money into right now.”

Researchers with the Automated Vehicle Institute are hoping to make Florida a hot bed for autonomous vehicle testing. There would be some logistical hurdles to clear if driverless cars become available to consumers. Some issues include assigning liability in accidents and how to license drivers who aren’t really driving.

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