Tech-driven vehicles emerge on Tampa roads

The vision for smooth traffic flow guided by technology is one step closer to becoming a reality in Tampa with a $17 million contract from the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) to begin testing connected cars along Meridian Drive and the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. 

The goal is to help decongest highways during peak travel periods and also explore methods for making road travel safer for motor vehicle occupants as well as pedestrians and bicyclists. 

“38 cities placed bids, and Tampa was one of just three bidders to win,” says Kimberly Finn, Director of Programming with the Downtown Tampa Partnership. The other cities include New York City and an undisclosed area in Wyoming, which were also chosen to participate in a $42 million USDOT plan to unveil the nationwide Connected Vehicle Pilot deployment initiative. Connected cars represent a “$35 billion industry, and it will be a game changer for our community,” Finn predicts.

“This helps position Tampa as an early adopter of this innovative and evolving technology, and it could launch the city as a hotbed of technology,” remarks Karen Kress, Director of Transportation & Planning at the Downtown Tampa Partnership. “The goal [with the connected vehicle plan] is to make transportation safer, especially for those who aren’t protected in a 3,000-pound vehicle, such as pedestrians and cyclists.” 

Preparing for the future requires action now

Robert Frey, who serves as Planning Director at the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), explains the contracts represent the second stage of the USDOT connected vehicle pilot rollout. 

“There was a preliminary safety deployment in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” he says. “This is now the second phase, to deploy connected vehicles and see how they function in a larger network. It’s a chance to develop best procedures and then roll it out to the rest of the country and get [the technology] into the mainstream.”  

While the nation may still be years away from seeing connected vehicles driving down streets on an everyday basis, the technology is here and now is the time, Frey says, to begin testing autonomous cars in earnest. “I’m sure we will discover solutions, and this will help us in putting together concepts for an operational plan. Full saturation of the technology could occur by 2040.” 

2040? While that may sound like a long way off today, Frey says it is relatively soon in terms of how transportation planners work. 2040 is 25 years into the future; by comparison, much of the construction work happening today along Interstate 275 in Tampa was on the drawing board in the late 1980s, or more than a quarter century ago. 

“Transportation projects take five to 12 years to go through a cycle,” Frey explains. 

Though much of the connected vehicle testing will occur on the elevated reversible lanes of the Selmon Expressway, which is already a designated autonomous vehicle test bed, Frey says this USDOT contract will focus primarily on a 0.7-mile stretch of Meridian Avenue in Tampa from the reversible lane entrance to the Channelside District. 

“There will also be other facets to this plan, including the implementation of next-generation traffic signals to improve traffic flow efficiency and modification to HART buses for safety modernization,” he adds.

Frey, who earned his Masters degree in Public Policy from Baylor University in Waco, TX, says the connected vehicle program is bringing together many public and private players, including Booz Allen Hamilton , Siemens, Global-5 Communications the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). 

Moving forward one tech-driven vehicle at a time

“We want to take a look at how connected vehicles will communicate with traffic signals, parked cars, and pedestrians, and see what works and what needs to be further improved,’’ says FDOT District 7 Secretary Paul Steinman in Tampa. “There’s even technology that allows cars to tell you where parking ramps, garages and spaces are.” 

Part of the objective, Steinman explains, is to help reduce the number of cars on the road and improve the safety and efficiency of those that are in use. 

“Studies show that the average household now has 2.5 cars. In the future, you won’t need two or three cars in your household; you might need just one. 

“If you think about it, at least 80 percent of the time, your car is not in use, so we may see cars that are shared among different people and are simply programed by the users where they need to go. One day, you might simply download an app that tells [the publicly shared car] to drive itself to your door and take you to work, then it will be off to serve the next user,” Steinman says

Such technology, he says, will lead to fewer cars on the streets and thus less roadway congestion. “This will mean more empty parking spaces and require fewer vehicles on the road.” 

He says bringing these dynamic plans to fruition requires consideration of at least three areas: technology, policy and legal issues and public and private sector involvement. 

“On the technological engineering side,” Steinman explains, “we need to look at things like lane widths. Right now, standard highway lanes are 12 feet wide, which is wide enough to allow human drivers safe spacing between cars.” 

In the future? “Connected vehicles will be able to operate alongside each other within centimeters, so we may not need 12-foot-wide lanes.” He says lane width is just one part of the engineering debate. 

“We also need to address infrastructural issues, such as how cars will communicate with each other and other vehicles as well as pedestrians and roadway obstructions. Right now, roadways don’t have the necessary technological infrastructure.” 

Regarding insurance and public policy, Steinman says there are several issues that must be addressed.

“First, we need to look at expanding the law to allow fully automated vehicles to be test driven and run on Florida roads. Right now, Florida allows ‘Level 3’ testing, which means that all connected vehicles must be equipped with human-controlled overrides for braking, gas, turning, etc.” 

The goal? “We will need ‘Level 4’ testing, which means the connected vehicles are completely autonomous.” Other related issues involve determining changes to automobile insurance laws, local and state liabilities, and other legal matters. 

Finally, Steinman says, FDOT is working with a group of players who will contribute ideas and weigh in on the issues to assure that all interests are addressed and concerns resolved. 

“It’s critical we talk to many groups and include them in the plan, because this dynamic undertaking requires everyone to be on board for all sides to ensure their voices are heard.” 

These voices include those of organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce , which has an interest on the tourism and business side, and Florida Office of Insurance Regulation, which will address liability matters. Another seat at the proverbial table is filled by the Florida Trucking Association (FTA), which has a major stake in the process; connected vehicle technology won’t just affect passenger cars, but all forms of highway transit, including transport vehicles.

Trucking industry sees itself as early adaptor  

Dr. Ken Armstrong, President and CEO of the FTA, says he participates in the Florida Automated Vehicles initiative and has been involved with many educational and feedback sessions with various trucking companies concerning the technology that he calls “revolutionary.” 

Watching the rapid evolution of technology in the field, he thinks it won’t be long before the trucking industry adapts. “I doubt it will be decades. Several years might be more accurate.” 

“There will be many steps forward, backward and sideways as we learn what the opportunities and obstacles are. Still, the rate of change is going to be so rapid in my opinion that it will feel like a revolution rather than a coherent process.” 

Armstrong says he’s encouraged by how quickly the trucking industry has embraced other technological advances that affect daily operations of the commercial trucking industry, such as weigh station bypass systems, electronic tolling, and more efficient inspection and detection along highways. Additional issues being addressed regard regulatory and insurance aspects. 

“Will all the manufacturers, all the regulators, and all the insurers see and react to the technology similarly? Disparity in the implementation process will be an enemy of adoption,” Armstrong says.

Concerns also will flare up pertaining to privacy issues. “Is this one step closer to ‘big brother’?” he asks rhetorically. “Finally, I think truckers are conscious of how the passenger car-driving public will react to automated trucks. However, assuming that the technology is getting applied to four-wheelers at the same rate it’s getting applied to trucks, this issue might resolve itself sooner than we expect.” 

Still, for all the potential hurdles that groups like the FTA and others have to clear, Armstrong is certain that the move toward connected vehicle technology is a step in the right direction. 

“The efficiencies offered by autonomous vehicle technology can’t be ignored. Drivers, equipment, fuel, and time are finite resources,” he remarks. “Automation has a track record of allocating those resources more wisely. Assuming that the technology can also produce a safer roadway, the arrival seems both desirable and inevitable.” 

Florida is among leaders in use of connected vehicle technology

Steinman is proud that Florida is on the cusp of this new technology. “At the USDOT & State Department of Motor Vehicle roundtable, there were two attendees from the states of California, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, the District of Columbia, and Florida,” he remarks. “That’s a very select group taking part in the early stage of this development.” 

Steinman, who went to Michigan State University and has a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering, says he “has a passion for autonomous technology,” which is one reason he has been such a proponent of seeing it take shape in the Tampa Bay Area. “It’s natural that these autonomous vehicle technology evolutions are happening in Tampa, which has been at the leading edge of this technology for at least 40 years.” 

Steinman highlights 1971 as an important year in Tampa’s role as an autonomous technology frontier. “That was when the automatic people mover system at Tampa International Airport was unveiled, the first place in the country to have such technology. What we’re doing now with connected cars is just building on what we’ve already done.” 

When it comes to connected vehicles, Steinman believes this is a monumental time for the Tampa area and transportation as a whole. “We’re living history right now. Autonomous vehicle technology is the biggest thing since the steam locomotive and start of the interstate system.”

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.