The driverless-car revolution is coming to Manhattan streets in early 2018. Trials are running in Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Boston and San Francisco. But the ride of the future is not yet on the calendar for Miami, a city that needs autonomous vehicles more than any other to render its notoriously bad drivers obsolete.
Hang in there, Miami road warriors, because high-tech, self-driving cars are on the way, and Florida is beckoning with the country’s least restrictive laws regulating their operation.
“Florida is in position to be an early deployment state,” said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a champion of the technology that will be highlighted at the annual Autonomous Vehicle Summit starting Tuesday in Tampa. “My goal is to have multiple rollouts in the next 24 months. It’s going to change the way we think about mobility and reshape the conversation about transportation.”
U.S. motorists drove a record 3.2 trillion miles last year, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and many of them hated every minute of it. Driving a car, whether a Model T, Mustang or Malibu, was key to the growth of the nation, and a distinctly American passion and necessity. Now it’s just a hassle.
But the advent of driverless cars is right around the corner, with 33 companies vying at various proving grounds to hone software and sensors to have them ready for consumers within the next 15 years. In the same way that driving your own personal vehicle once promised freedom, being transported in a vehicle that drives itself promises a release from the tyranny of navigating gridlocked streets, searching for parking and risking life and limb on roadways where 90 percent of accidents are caused by human error.
The density and chaos of Miami Beach plus local drivers’ addiction to their cars would make it an ideal urban petri dish for a pilot program. Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez tried to lure an Uber program to the city last year and vows to try again. She was inspired during a visit to Pittsburgh when she noticed a white car with a large contraption on its roof pull up next to her at a stoplight.
“It was a driverless taxi and my young nephew turned to me and said, ‘I may never drive a car in my lifetime,’ ” Rosen Gonzalez said. “It hit me that this technology will change the way we live and the way we get from point A to point B.
“We are now a stay-at-home culture. If someone asks me to come from Miami Beach to Coral Gables for dinner, I’ll probably say no way, that’s an hour in my car. Going anywhere in South Florida eats up so much of our time and energy. I’m not hopeful about public transit here. We’ve got to find other ways to break through the congestion that’s paralyzing our cities and quality of life.”
As you, hapless commuter, sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic on 836, engineers in cities and labs around the country are working out the kinks in laser radar and sophisticated GPS technology. In New York, electric Chevrolet Bolts will be tested on the crowded and convoluted streets of lower Manhattan “to expose our software to unusual situations,” said GM’s Cruise Automation CEO Kyle Vogt. In Boston’s Seaport District three companies are testing self-driving cars, including NuTonomy, which has partnered with ride-hailing service Lyft to study how passengers book and route the cars. In Pittsburgh and Phoenix, Uber offers pickup service in self-driving Volvo hybrids, with a safety driver and engineer up front to evaluate the car’s behavior.
“We’ve already provided 30,000 passenger trips and logged 1 million autonomous miles,” said Uber’s Justin Erlich, head of policy for autonomous vehicles and urban aviation. “We see a world with a shared electric autonomous fleet that will reduce the cost of transit, reduce congestion, reduce car ownership, reduce fatalities and reduce the need for parking so that cities can reclaim that space for more useful purposes.”
In Florida, the University of Florida’s Transportation Institute, the Florida Department of Transportation and the city of Gainesville are creating a test network on campus and surrounding highways. The NaviGATOR, a hybrid Toyota Highlander, is already a star AV operated by UF’s Center for Intelligent Machines and Robots.
The Miami-based nonprofit foundation Fastrack Institute, which aims its brain power at solving urban problems, is in the midst of a 16-week program designed to address Miami-Dade’s transportation ills.
“If we can solve it in Miami, then that becomes an export industry that applies to every city in the world,” co-founder Salim Ismail told the Herald.
Olli, a self-driving 12-passenger minibus powered by IBM’s Watson supercomputer, could soon hit the road in Miami-Dade for testing in collaboration with Florida International University.
The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority has offered access to its roads and partnered with FDOT and the University of South Florida’s Automated Vehicle Institute to test AV applications. Babcock Ranch, northeast of Fort Myers, is being planned as a greenfield community utilizing electric AVs.
“One thing Florida has going for it is its weather,” Erlich said, pointing out that snow and weather-beaten roads present obstacles for computer-driven vehicles. “Deployment is more easily done in environments where the weather is warm and sunny and the road infrastructure is in good shape. Hopefully Florida can get ahead of its flooding issues.”
How profoundly will life change when we’re all passengers?
Brandes predicts that mobility on demand and a release from the physical focus on driving will “change our cities at the same transformative level that the iPhone changed communications.” People may decide not to own a car or families may own only one, saving them thousands of dollars per year.
“You’ll press a button and in two minutes a car shows up and whisks you to your destination,” he said. “It doesn’t park; it goes on to pick up the next person. When you’re ready to leave, a car takes you away. While in the vehicle you can be on Facebook or Netflix, reading emails, doing work. This becomes productive rather than wasted time. It’s a billable hour. We only use our cars 4 percent of the day; a shared economy is more efficient. We recapture land devoted to parking. We’ll need to address questions, too, like: How do we charge all these electric vehicles? How do we evacuate in a hurricane? How do we make up for the loss in parking revenue?”
Driverless technology will likely add vehicles to roads while reducing traffic and pollution because of smoother, more intelligent driving patterns, but the convenience and comfort could also increase suburban sprawl as commuters choose to live farther from work, concluded a study by the Boston Consulting Group and the World Economic Forum. AV fleets could also put drivers and transit workers out of jobs.
Miami is desperate for driverless cars because it is home to some of the world’s worst human drivers. We’re overloaded with tourists, people who drive according to the customs of their native countries, and elderly drivers. Unfamiliarity with our roads and laws exacerbates hostility already heightened by the heat and humidity, which is cruelly complicated by endless construction projects and horrid urban planning. The only thing good about being trapped in your car on I-95 or Brickell Avenue is that no one can hear you scream. So let us count the ways that AV innovation could preserve our mental and physical health:
No more road rage. It’s no use to yell or spit at a computer or threaten it with a gun or baseball bat.
No more drivers distracted by talking or tapping on their phones. When the light turns green, the car in front of you will actually move forward.
No more tailgaters, demonic speeders or lane-slalomers who think they are Dale Earnhardt.
No more clueless drivers who don’t use turn signals, activate emergency flashers when it’s raining, brake for mysterious reasons, react to a green left-turn arrow as if it is a complete surprise, park in slow motion or blockade the left lane by going 45 mph (probably while texting).
No more wrong-way drivers on exit ramps or in express lanes.
No more drunk drivers.
Imagine how autonomous travel will change the way we use the space that is now a cockpit requiring our attachment to a steering wheel and concentration on the constantly changing environment surrounding our machine.
With no more steering wheel or conventional seating arrangement, you could install a bed and nap during your commute. Install exercise equipment and do a workout. It’s a room on wheels. Cook a meal. Watch movies. Watch a Miami Heat game. Read a book. Write a term paper. Set up a date online, order dinner online, pick both up and tool around town. Take a road trip to California or Maine and log miles all night long without the stress of bug-eyed fatigue.
But remember, the idea is to make our lives less autocentric, not more.