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An Autonomous Future

Central Florida is taking a front seat in the research and development of self-driving vehicles.

The future is near and here in Central Florida when it comes to self-driving vehicle technology. With the Florida Legislature working on bills to update the state’s motor vehicle laws to include autonomous vehicles (AVs) and the creation of the Central Florida Autonomous Vehicle Partnership— which is bringing together a number of local entities to work together in research and testing—the area is seeing a flurry of activity that suggests the Sunshine State is on its way to becoming a true hub of AV development.

A Self-Driving Taxi
“The state of Florida has been a real leader in autonomous vehicle technology,” Justin Erlich, vice president of strategy, policy and legal for self-driving taxi company Voyage, says.

Voyage is working to launch self-driving taxi services in specific communities around the United States and the tech company has chosen Central Florida’s The Villages, a planned community that is mostly home to retirees, to be one of the first places to try out this amenity.

Erlich says The Villages was carefully chosen for a few reasons. One reason is that they’ve deployed the system in a similar community in San Jose, California on a smaller scale. And two, the company believes that the aging population in this area could really benefit from this service.

“I think first and foremost we wanted to make sure that this technology was really helping people,” Erlich says. “And giving access to seniors and folks in retirement communities was critical for helping to unlock that independence.”

Additionally, because of the way the community was designed, Erlich and his colleagues believe the technology can function safely and properly.

Currently, these self-driving taxis are being tested in the community with a safety driver behind the wheel and an engineer in the passenger seat. The next step will be a pilot phase where the taxi will pick up passengers but still retain a safety driver who will act as an ambassador for the program. The last phase will be a full driverless experience, which the company expects to roll out in 2019.

Erlich says these taxis are considered “Level 4 automation” where a self-driving car can operate in a geofenced area that is tightly controlled.

“Level 4 is very much what we’re focused on,” he says. “We think that’s a better way to get this to market sooner to provide value and benefit to residents by choosing very specific areas to deploy.”

Level 5 automation is what engineers and researchers are trying to figure out right now: a car that can drive anywhere without any constraints.

Whether or not the seniors of The Villages will actually use the taxi service remains to be seen but Erlich is positive that like all technologies, people will become more trusting over time.

“Our experience is when people actually sit in the backseat of one of these vehicles, it feels super novel at first but then after a few minutes it just feels normalized again,” he says.

The Unwritten Rules of the Road
Although self-driving technology is starting to take off, there’s still years of research and testing that needs to be done before cars with Level 5 autonomy will safely be able to navigate the roadways.

Anticipating this, Florida Polytechnic University created its Advanced Mobility Institute, a research center for the development and testing of autonomous vehicle-related technology.

Rahul Razdan, director of the institute, says there are still significant challenges for this technology to overcome. One of the major issues researchers are still trying to figure out is how driverless cars can follow not just the written rules of the road but also pick up on the unwritten ones, too.

“When you and I drive, we actually have a language of driving between each other,” Razdan says. “You might do a micro acceleration to kind of just let the world know, ‘I’m going to go.’ … Or we would have eye contact at a four-way intersection.

… Well, these cars don’t connect with that language.”

Some companies like Uber and Google have already started testing their cars on the roadways in places like Arizona and California and there have been a number of crashes as a result. Florida Poly’s research institute did a study on these accidents and found that the vast majority of the crashes were caused by people hitting the AV with their vehicle, presumably because they couldn’t communicate with the AV or anticipate its actions.

To complicate matters further, Razdan says not only do people have a “language of driving” but there are dialects in this language as well.

“In other words, I come from Boston,” he says. “The rule of the road in Boston is don’t make eye contact. If you do, it’s too late. You know? It’s a very aggressive style. [But] everybody knows that style, therefore it’s anticipated.”

If you leave Boston to go to another city or state in the U.S., those unwritten rules tend to change. “In the part of Ohio that I grew up in,” Razdan says, “it was pretty genteel in the sense that you would go up to a four-way stop sign and people, even if they came first, they would let you go.”

For these reasons and more, Razdan says Level 5 automation is not as close as people may believe.

“I think fully automatic, Level 5, we’re pretty far away,” he says. “But I think what you’ll find, especially in Florida, is you’re going to find what I would call limited cases where that technology will roll out much earlier than in the traditional passenger car market.”

Razdan says this technology is already starting to be used in industries such as agriculture and will quickly start to show up in other sectors like public transportation.

In the meantime, Razdan and his team are working with simulators to experiment with different driving scenarios and researching methodologies for how to test AVs at a new $42 million transportation technology testing facility called SunTrax that will be located off Interstate 4 between Orlando and Tampa, next to Florida Poly.

SunTrax is being built by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, a business unit of the Florida Department of Transportation. The Central Florida Autonomous Vehicle Partnership is sponsoring the facility, which is financed by turnpike toll revenue, and the first phase of the track is expected to open in April 2019.

Balancing Safety with Innovation
The University of Central Florida (UCF) is also making its impact on autonomous vehicle technology. In fact, UCF’s Institute for Simulation and Training (IST) has already created a self-driving simulator, which resembles something like an arcade game, to gauge things like how quickly a safety driver can take over in the event that the self-driving car encounters a problem it can’t solve.

Peter Hancock, a research professor at UCF’s department of psychology and IST, says one big issue is something called “calibration of trust” where people tend to either over-trust a technology or under-trust its capabilities, which can create problems.

“So, if we over-trust it, we tend to attribute it more intelligence than it actually has,” he says. “If we under-trust it, then we tend to turn it off when we shouldn’t. So, those are about the issues we sort of need to consider: How do you calibrate trust?”

Moreover, as we adapt to having self-driving cars on the road, Hancock says we can’t assume that all people will act in good faith.

“Driverless vehicles are ultimately designed to do avoidance,” he says. “So when people learn that, they’ll be able to push it left or right or whatever they care to do.”

All the while, the Legislature is passing new regulations to make the state an attractive place for tech companies to bring their AV technology, but some are concerned that innovation is being favored over safety.

These concerns were magnified when an autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian earlier this year in Arizona. After the crash, a survey done by the American Automobile Association, known as AAA, found that consumer trust in autonomous vehicles declined.

“While autonomous vehicles are being tested, there’s always a chance that they will fail or encounter a situation that challenges even the most advanced system,” Megan Foster, AAA’s director of federal affairs, said in a press release about the study. “To ease fears, there must be safeguards in place to protect vehicle occupants and the motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians with whom they share the road.”

Hancock agrees and says testing on Florida’s roadways while the technology is still in its infancy is dangerous, but unfortunately it is already happening. He thinks more people need to speak up about what we are and are not willing to allow on our streets.

“We need much more discussion about these sort of technologies,” he says. “We need everybody to chime in. It’s going to affect everybody, so we certainly need people to chime in sooner rather than later.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s December 2018 issue.