• Florida sees growth, investment in future of self-driving vehicles

    By: Len Kiese , James Tutten

    Updated:

    ORLANDO, Fla. - Get ready to see more self-driving cars on Florida roads.

    Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed legislation allowing qualified companies to start testing vehicles right beside you on local highways with no driver behind the wheel.

    It's a scary thought for some, but state and local leaders said it's the exciting future of transportation and the Sunshine State should lead the way.


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    The recent unmanned test by Starsky Robotics went on for nearly 10 miles at speeds up to 55 mph beside unsuspecting drivers.

    "My first car was a '36 Ford Station wagon, and we've come a long way since then," said The Villages resident George Wyman.

    Wyman never thought he'd see autonomous vehicles in his lifetime, but now in his retirement, he's getting an up-close look at the future.

    Villagers will soon be able to ditch their golf carts and summon autonomous taxis by Voyage to get around. 

    But some, like Wyman, still has safety concerns.

    “There would be so many signals, curbs, corners, other drivers. That's a stretch for me to imagine that," Wyman said.

    That's especially true after a scene in Arizona in 2018 when a woman walking was hit and killed by one of Uber's self-driving vehicles.

    "Autonomous vehicles are great,” said Voyage General Manager Dean Bushey. “But it doesn't make sense unless I can convince you of the safety factor."

    For Voyage, millions of dollars have already gone into perfecting that factor using everything from cameras to GPS and lidar technology.

    Some of that core safety technology is being developed in Orange County at Luminar Technologies, where the so-called "eyes" for self-driving cars are being designed and built.

    The technology scans for potential dangers.

    "Florida has now positioned itself as the leading the place in the United States to start testing this technology," said Scott Faris, chief business officer with Luminar Technologies.

    In Polk County, a 2.35 mile oval track is now in place at the state's newly built Suntrax facility, ready for self-driving technology to be tested. 

    "This is all designed for highway speed so it's 70 miles an hour,” said Paul Satchfield, Suntrax program manager. 

    All the testing is reaching for the ultimate goal of autonomous vehicles cutting down on crashes.

    "They're gonna remove the human error factor from driving on the roads," Satchfield said. 

    But humans, specifically first responders, will still need to be on standby.

    With new technology already here, like Beep's autonomous taxis in Lake Nona, Orlando fire crews spent three days training on how to respond to emergencies. 

    "How to mobilize the vehicle, how to secure the power to the vehicle, how to gain access to the vehicle," said Joe McCluan, district chief with the Orlando Fire Department.

    Firefighters’ training will intensify as we see more autonomous cars go from the testing phase to the real deal.

    It’s a hard sell for some drivers, but some, like Wyman, are open to change. 

    "You don't have to get in your car and drive too far before you notice a driver that's not really doing a great job out there. So yeah, I would definitely give it a try," Wyman said.

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