Central Florida tapped as a U.S. proving ground for autonomous vehicles | Crain's Orlando

Central Florida tapped as a U.S. proving ground for autonomous vehicles

Renowned as the theme-park capital of the world and a rental-car mecca, Orlando could soon add another label to its resume: innovation center for automated vehicle technology.

In a major coup for the area, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership was just named one of the U.S. Department of Transportation's 10 designated proving ground pilot sites.

The designation gives Central Florida "a major opportunity for the region to prepare [for] and understand all the impacts" of autonomous transportation by providing a foundation for the safe testing, application, demonstration and deployment of new technologies, said Michael Shannon, director of transportation development with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise. Automated vehicle technologies are expected to be a multibillion-dollar industry driving the region’s transportation system and local business community.

One local transportation official is not a bit surprised by Orlando's successful bid.

“I doubt another applicant rival[ed] our dynamite team,” said Charles Ramdatt, Orlando’s director of special projects, who spearheaded the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership initiative. Ramdatt believes Central Florida's submission was unique among the national field of 60 applicants.

“For one thing, we focus on every mode of transportation,” he said, referring to the partnership proposal, which outlined applications for transportation of freight, cars, public transit, bikes and pedestrians. Another advantage, he says, is Orlando’s multidimensional, regional context. “Mayor [Buddy] Dyer has been pushing us to be regional, to think out of the box about how we can improve services and efficiency for both our citizens and visitors. Our partners are not just traditional partners.”

Powerful players

The partnership includes numerous public, academic, private-sector and government entities throughout the multicounty region. Along with participants like Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, the Florida Department of Transportation and communities throughout the broader metro area, the partnership includes NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the University of Central Florida, Lynx transit system and Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland.

“We’ve got some brilliant people here already working on significant automated-vehicle projects," Ramdatt said.

For example, Florida Polytechnic is working on a long-term partnership with the Florida Turnpike Enterprise to create the SunTrax testing facility, a 2.25-mile track on a 400-acre site adjacent to FTE’s Polk Parkway (State Road 540), two miles south of the university campus. The project will be advertised for construction next month with an opening set for fall 2018.

NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which has fostered some of the most successfully commercialized technologies, already conducts heavy equipment testing for manufacturers in a calibrated environment at its Swamp Works Laboratory. With more than 564 miles of secured, private roadways, the center allows researchers to subject software and hardware to a number of controlled environments with minimal risk, including within pedestrian, urban, and cycling settings.

The University of Central Florida, with the nation’s second-largest student population, provides multiple, additional avenues for specialized research and testing, says Ramdatt. Researchers in its Transportation and Simulation labs specialize in understanding the human-machine interface, and UCF’s Center for Advanced Systems Simulation is nationally recognized for advancing modeling technology and practical expertise.

Unlike most applicants, Central Florida offers something for every type of researcher or stakeholder – including venues that are perfect for automated- and controlled-vehicle testing. Ramdatt notes that Orlando’s tourist district is in many ways a unique testing venue, with a high volume of vulnerable, distracted drivers, riders and pedestrians. The city of Orlando has collaborated with Central Florida’s rental car fleet to increase the number of electric vehicles and available charging stations. And the Florida Turnpike includes more than 460 miles of roadway throughout the state, encompassing both urban and rural settings.

The Turnpike infrastructure includes dedicated fiber-optic communications, dedicated traffic cameras every mile, safety service patrols, and 24/7 staffing of a traffic management center – a level of investment lacking in other regions of the country, according to the Turnpike's Shannon. the agency is already at work on a Drive Assisted Truck Platooning project involving the Beachline Expressway, which connects two key transportation hubs – the Orlando International Airport and Port Canaveral.

New efficiencies

Truck platooning, in particular, is poised to bridge the gap between current capabilities and a highly automated transportation system. In platooning, two or more semis are connected via high-speed communication – or “dedicated short-range communication" (DSRC) – while positioned 40 to 50 feet apart, explains George Gilhooley, East Florida office leader and senior vice president at engineering firm HNTB Corp. Acceleration and braking by the lead vehicle are instantaneously relayed and duplicated by trucks that follow. Drivers remain present inside each vehicle and each maintains the ability to steer.

Forms of DSRC technology are already in use on some high-end vehicles, Gilhooley explains, but new protocols in the works will outline a common language, or platform, to ensure connectivity. Because the technology reduces human reaction time while enabling drafting, there is a 7 percent overall fuel savings when two trucks platoon. That’s between 1,400-1,500 gallons of diesel, or around $4,000 per semi per year, based on 125,000 miles traveled annually. The environmental impact also decreases significantly.

Surprisingly, platooning also eases traffic congestion. “When you reduce the distance between vehicles like this, you free up capacity for other vehicles,” explained Gilhooley. “The same number of vehicles move more efficiently." DSRC technology in vehicles will also reduce the number of crashes since vehicles are aware of the speed, direction and braking of other vehicles, and not just the one directly ahead.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is in the rule-making stage when it comes to automated vehicle regulations, including truck platooning. Assuming a final rule is issued in 2019, it's likely the phase-in period would begin in 2021 with all vehicles having to comply by 2023.

Meanwhile, the U.S. DOT's 10 proving ground designees will collectively form a "community of practice" around safe testing and deployment. They'll share best practices for the safe conduct of testing and operations, enabling a faster rate of safe, automated vehicle deployment. Other designated cities or regional agencies include Pittsburgh, San Diego Association of Governments, Iowa City Area Development Group and North Carolina Turnpike Authority.

The designation is sure to push Central Florida into the spotlight, says Ramdatt. The region's unique combination of talent and technological innovation, high-tech research venues, and track record of successful collaboration will make it the go-to destination for companies to test their prototypes or implement new programs. “It’s a great economic development tool that will really hit home.”

January 19, 2017 - 1:39pm