Florida embraces self-driving cars, as engineers and lawmakers prepare for the new technology

It may be years before you can take your hands off the wheel and have your car go where you tell it. But driverless cars are on their way and Florida is already embracing the vehicles, whose technology promises to save lives, create jobs and free minds from the grind of the road.

Last month Florida became the second state to pass a bill allowing tests of self-driving cars.

Lawmakers in places such as Florida and Nevada - the first state to legalize self-driving cars for testing - have realized that embracing the technology could be fruitful during tough economic times, said Lindsay Voss, senior program development manager for the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

"Right now we associate Michigan with the heart of the automotive industry, but I think there is a sense that driverless cars open up a whole new opportunity for companies who are in technology but not necessarily automotive technology," said Voss, whose Washington-based group counts Fortune 500 companies and business consultants among its members . "It's an opportunity that has the states really opening their eyes and wanting to be a part of it."

Driverless-car advocates say programming and manufacturing companies may consider Florida an ideal place to work in the field, since state legislators have begun addressing the issue .

Lawmaker drives effort

Rep. Jeffrey Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a co-sponsor of Florida's automated­-vehicle law, said preparing for unmanned cars to cruise public roads could require additional signage or highway lanes to accommodate them - projects that could create jobs for Floridians.

Advocates add that local and state governments may have to invest in technology so the cars can communicate with each other and with traffic signals on the road via sensors or GPS technology.

Brandes said he foresaw the economic opportunities of bringing this technology to the state after seeing a TV documentary on the topic. He also realized self-driving vehicles could help reduce motor-vehicle fatalities .

He contacted executives at Google, which in 2010 launched a driverless vehicle project that has completed more than 200,000 miles of computer-led driving.

"This legislation is about vision and leadership for the 21st-century world and forges a path for future innovative economic opportunities for Floridians," Brandes said in January, when he sat in a Google-created automated car as he was promoting the bill in Tallahassee.

"I pressed the button and took my hands off the wheel and the feet off the pedals, and cruised at 70 mph on the interstate," Brandes said. "It felt a little bit like I was kicking into cruise control, but it was fascinating to watch the car make decisions."

"I think you are going to see many states recognizing this technology, begin to write rules and regulations to accommodate it and hopefully do a lot of research in this type of technology," Brandes added.

Florida's bill, HB 1207, calls for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to submit a report to legislators by February 2014 detailing additional legislative action needed.

There are least six driverless­-car projects under way worldwide.

Volvo, for example, has its Road Train project, in which several driverless cars travel behind a semi-trailer packed with electronics. The driver, by ceding control to the train, gets better fuel efficiency because of drafting and constant speeds and is freed to do other things without having to watch the road.

Audi's driverless car drove up Colorado's curvy mountain roads to Pike's Peak in 2010. Taking part in that year's Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, the car completed the 156-turn course in 27 minutes, compared with race officials' estimates of a 17-minute finish for an expert human driver in a similar car.

Audi officials said the computer's time set a benchmark as to how close driverless vehicles are to expert drivers. The car company also said the computer's timing is probably similar to the time an average driver would take to complete the course.

Many issues to resolve

It's a matter of when - not if - driverless cars are used for daily commuting and travel, experts say. And that creates many questions: how to insure them, how to integrate them with 20- and 30-year-old cars that still require the human touch, and how to make them affordable. These are issues that will likely take years, if not decades, to square away.

"Driverless cars are not going to be something that everyone immediately has, and even once this has been accepted to the point when 25 percent of vehicles on the road are driverless, you still have people in regular cars dealing with regular issues," said Voss, who in June will participate in a driverless-car summit in Detroit to address public concerns.

Some safety features available in many cars - Volvo's Blind Spot Information System or Toyota's Intelligent Parking Assist on some Prius models - are laying groundwork for hands-free driving.

"Your cruise

control, your automatic parking technology that will help you parallel park, all of these things are little bits and pieces of this bigger movement of the automated car," Voss said.

"But it's not about smart cars that help you park or flash a warning when you are about to hit somebody. It's about getting in the car where you do not have to focus on driving to get to where you are going."

Steve Dellenback, director of the Intelligent Systems Department at Southwest Research Institute in Texas, said cost is the key to when driverless cars will become a reality for the average consumer.

"The cost of unmanned ground vehicles is a minimum of six figures for just the hardware, excluding the cost of the vehicle," Dellenback said. "We are a long way from having deployed unmanned systems on public streets."

Liability a question mark

Liability is also a potential issue with driverless vehicles. Whom do you sue when a computer runs over you?

Florida's new law says the manufacturer of a vehicle converted by a third party into a driverless car for testing purposes is not liable, but it does not address liability issues with driverless cars once they are used by the general population.

"Insurance companies will absolutely embrace them and I think you'll have discounts for having these types of cars," Brandes said.

"These cars will drive better than you or I drive," Brandes said. "They won't drive in someone's blind spot. They won't drive past the speed limit. They won't get angry. The benefits of this technology are just incredible."


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