Autonomous vehicles, also known as driverless or robotic cars, are no longer confined to the realms of science fiction. Today, four U.S. states – California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada – actually allow driverless cars to be tested under controlled conditions.
The Federal Government has only authorized a small number of public roads to be used as test tracks, and one of those is in Tampa, Fla. Autonomous vehicles exist in a number of variations on different levels. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has defined five levels of vehicle automation:
- Level Zero: These are vehicles can detect their environment, for example, with a collision alert, but depend on the driver to act upon that information.
- Level One: Here, the car has control over minor functions, including automatic braking and parking assistance.
- Level Two: This allows for other features, such as cruise control, but the driver must be able to resume control at a moment’s notice.
- Level Three: This hands over total control for limited situations for a limited period of time. A buffer is built-in for the driver to adjust the driving situation before manual override.
- Level Four: This is what most people understand as defining an autonomous car. Fully functioning automatic vehicles that need no input from a driver.
An essential element in the concept of autonomous cars is the ability of the vehicles to communicate with each other in some way. In California, Google already has a prototype car on the road. The best brains in Silicon Valley are currently working on the communications technology necessary to convert the dream into reality.
The Center for Urban Transportation Research, in Florida, is embracing a practical, level-by-level approach. At present, the driverless car law there doesn’t allow for a car without a person in it. However, since Florida is close to becoming the third most populous state in the U.S., they understand that the issue of future traffic density needs to be addressed now.
Last January, the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority announced that the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway now complies with the criteria necessary to become an automated vehicle test site. This is after receiving the approval of the Research and Innovative Technology Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Stephen Diaco, a leading lawyer from Florida, serves as chairman of the Board of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority. During his time on the board, Mr. Diaco has pushed very hard for these innovations to take place. He says “I have been chairman of the board for a number of years and we’re doing autonomous vehicle testing on our roads, just staying on the cutting edge with these things.”
Apart from the Selmon Expressway, Florida has another other test site which incorporates several different types of thoroughfares. These include interstate, medium-speed arterial roads and low-speed roads with heavy pedestrian activity.
George Gilhooley, an engineer with consulting firm HNTB, says the effort to attain better, more efficient usage of highways is helping drive the adoption of these new technologies. Apart from optimizing road use, the main issue is one of safety. He feels that the sooner traffic managers can respond to a given situation – and get traffic moving again – the better.
According to RITA, because of the variety of vehicle and infrastructure safety systems installed or planned, the focus must be on consistent and widely applicable standards and protocols. There are two forms of connected vehicles: those which can communicate with other vehicles and those that communicate with the infrastructure itself.
The vehicles use a combination of cameras, radar, LIDAR remote sensing and GPS to pilot themselves. In the future, the target is to enable the driver the option of doing other tasks while the vehicle drives itself. How far away is this future? Well, some experts say driverless cars may arrive by 2040, but they also add that fully manual cars may not be off the road until 2070.
The consulting and research group IHS Automotive forecasts total worldwide sales of self-driving cars will grow from almost 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035. They estimate that seven million of those vehicles will have dual driver and autonomous control, but some 4.8 million will be on autonomous control only. In total, they think there will be around 54 million self-driving cars in use globally by 2035.
Whatever the time frame, Stephen Diaco is determined that his Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority will be in the forefront. He says, “We’ve always promoted innovations as an agency, and I think it’s really important to be constantly innovating. Wherever we can, innovations in technologies are embraced on our roadways to make sure they’re as up to date as possible.”