Driverless cars race toward reality in Tampa

Florida is one of just four states where it’s legal to test driverless cars on public roads, and Tampa officials are unrolling opportunities for auto manufacturers that want to test autonomous vehicle technology on local roadways. 

One of these test sites is Tampa’s Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, one of fewer than a dozen such sites in the United States designated for testing autonomous vehicles. 

German auto manufacturer Audi test drove its “Connect” driverless car prototype in the summer of 2014 on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa, recreating a traffic jam to determine the capabilities of the vehicle’s sensors.

Meanwhile, other companies, including Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Nissan and even Internet search engine giant Google are all in the process of developing autonomous vehicles that now are in the testing phase. 

According to Sue Chrzan, Communications Director at the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), local leaders are pushing the pedal to the metal when it comes to showcasing Tampa as a testing ground for this new technology. 

“We’ve put in a grant for connected vehicles,” Chrzan reports. The proposal calls for two stages of funding, with the first part of the grant paying for the planning of an autonomous roadway improvement and the other amount paying for its implementation. If the grant request is funded, Chrzan says planning and implementation could take three to four years. 

The grant focuses on the Selmon Expressway, a highway of choice for autonomous vehicle proponents because the lanes of the elevated reversible roadway lead traffic in a single direction and can even be closed. “There’s a proposal to integrate the [western] end of the reversible roadway on the Selmon Expressway so connected vehicles can talk to cars and bikes, improving the safety along the Meridian Avenue corridor.” 

While the segment of Meridian Avenue that Chrzan highlights is about one mile long, she says that it could be just the beginning of further enhancements that may come to the Selmon Expressway and other Tampa area roads.

“The ultimate goal is to make roads safer,” says Chrzan. “We could eventually see the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) and THEA plans for 20 to 30 years from now incorporate elements of the technologies tested in the initial phase.” 

MOSI rolls out the Navia 

The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI Tampa) is introducing visitors to an eight-passenger, self-driving shuttle car called Navia this summer, making Tampa the first of eight U.S. cities to have this $250,000, laser-guided vehicle created by a French company called Induct Technology

“We’re using the vehicle as an education showpiece for the museum,” says Molly Demeulenaere, President and CEO of MOSI. She says the electric-powered Navia will be an interactive experience for visitors, who can board the vehicle as it navigates mock intersections and obstacles on the road. “In the future, it could be used for people who need help getting around or bring you into the lobby, but for now it’s a summer experience and a chance for people to come learn about technology.” 

The vehicle could potentially map the entire MOSI campus, Demeulenaere says, but Florida’s typical summer afternoon rainshowers make it necessary for the vehicle to also operate indoors. Being the first publicly accessible autonomous vehicle, the Navia is designed to help introduce people to driverless technology and show them how it can be utilized in a real-world setting. 

“It creates a multigenerational conversation for grandparents, parents and children to talk about this technology with each other,” she says. 

The open-air style of the vehicle will be inviting to some who might otherwise be hesitant to enter a closed autonomous vehicle, such as a sedan. “Sometimes people are concerned about getting into an enclosed space,” she says. 

Ultimately, the museum’s leader says Navia is just one example of MOSI’s overarching mission to help bring science to the masses.

“Our role is to give people access to the technology and open their minds so they will be curious about this and want to learn more on their own,” she says. “Everything we do at MOSI is interactive and hands-on.” 

The introduction of the Navia at MOSI is a step in the right direction not just for the museum, she says, but also for the autonomous car industry and Tampa as a whole. 

“It’s a win-win for everyone because it’s good for our museum, it benefits [Induct Technology], and it’s great for Tampa because it can spur economic development here and breed a smart community.” 

Navigating public policy issues

Just across Fowler Avenue from MOSI, at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), analysts are thinking beyond the hardcore technological science of autonomous vehicles. They’re taking up the arduous and relatively uncharted path involving policy issues that could potentially surround the implementation of driverless cars both in Tampa and in other U.S. cities. 

While the CUTR, which is funded almost exclusively by research grants, is responsible for bicyclist and pedestrian safety, highway safety and the use of transit-related grants, the myriad issues concerning autonomous vehicles have raced to the top of the organization’s research priorities over the past couple years. 

“One of the roles we employ locally is to gather leadership and put together an inventory of resources for the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) and those who want to test their technology,” explains Project Leader Stephen Reich. 

In addition to providing resources for local government and private industry, Reich and his team must also find answers to questions – many now only hypothetical – concerning the new technology. 

“Does driverless car technology kill mass transit? What about businesses that rely on drive-by customers? Who might get sued if an accident happens due to malfunctions with the vehicle technology?” Reich theoretically asks. “These are the types of policy issues we have to discuss, particularly in regards to liability matters, which are huge.”

He also says another important consideration is whether municipalities should designate lanes solely to driverless cars. If that were to happen, there are many potential problems that could arise there, too. “How do we enforce it so, say, a guy driving his classic Ford Thunderbird wouldn’t drift into the autonomous vehicle lane?” 

Reich’s team is parsing a host of other issues relating to driverless vehicles, including ethical concerns and the economic benefits of using the technology to move goods. They’re also analyzing the sociocultural aspects of autonomous vehicles, especially as they relate to the Millennial generation. 

“We’ve been curious if the delay of marriage, the difficulty many Millennials have faced in finding jobs during the economic downturn, and other issues relating to the younger generation would affect travel,” Reich says. 

Furthermore, Reich and the CUTR are studying the potential energy savings that could be achieved with driverless cars. 

“Much of a standard vehicle’s weight helps protect its occupants in the case of an accident,” Reich explains. “However, if autonomous vehicles virtually eliminate the risk of crashes, does that mean the weight of these cars can be significantly reduced? If so, then lighter vehicles could translate to huge energy savings.” 

Of all the questions for which he and the team at CUTR must seek answers, Reich is confident about this: “the technology isn’t only coming, it’s here.” 

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.