Florida is on the road to an era of driverless cars with its good weather, popularity as a tourist destination, and demographics. That’s the assessment of two advocates of the technology — one a Palm Beach consultant and the other a state senator from St. Petersburg who says Florida is already a leader in the push toward autonomous vehicles.
“I think in the next five years there will be an autonomous vehicle service running here on the island,” said Grayson Brulte, president of Brulte & Co., which relocated from Beverly Hills, California to Palm Beach in May.
One of the reasons for the move was that California regulations allow deployment of self-driving cars, but companies can’t charge fares for the rides. Overall, regulations there are too “strenuous” and “there’s no path to revenue,” said Brulte, who works with trucking and other transportation companies to help them sort through government regulations and promote their services to the public.
He predicts that 10 to 15 percent of cars on the road could be automated by 2040, and experiments have been ongoing in Florida.
Those programs will be discussed and debated, along with the future of electric vehicles and shared vehicles, at the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit at the Hilton Miami Downtown on Thursday and Friday. Brulte serves on the organizing committee.
One program is Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup funded by Ford and VW Group, which has been testing Ford Fusion hybrids in Miami in the Wynwood area. A paid service is expected to begin soon.
“In terms of public use deployment timing, we remain on plan for initial commercialization beginning in 2021,” Argo AI director of communications Alan Hall said via email.
Another operates in Central Florida in The Villages as the Voyage Auto pilot program.
“When fully operational, all 125,000 residents will have the ability to summon a self-driving car to their doorstep using the Voyage mobile app, then travel autonomously anywhere within the community,” the company says on its website, voyage.auto.
Waymo, operating in Phoenix area, has a fully driverless car with no driver in the front seat. “You’re watching the wheel go,” said Brulte.
But right now, almost all of the vehicles operating on the road have a safety driver, who sits behind the wheel ready to take over if there’s a problem. And there’s sometimes an engineer in the passenger seat collecting data.
Although the Florida Legislature cleared the way in May with a bill allowing companies to field fully automated vehicles, there are still hurdles to cross. Critics worry about liability issues, such as who’s at fault if there are injuries or damage in a crash.
Also, Brulte said, while some of the best engineers in the world are working on refining the technology, “the big problem is how to get the public to use them.
“It really comes down to demographics. It’s interesting that if you look at 82 to 85 and older, in terms of mobility they’re afraid of being attacked by an Uber driver. When you get into mid-40s into upper-60s the issue is they don’t want to give up control. When you get into the younger demographics, it’s OK, I want to go where I want when I want and I don’t want to have to wait,” Brulte said.
A majority of younger people are OK with automated vehicles or not having a car, he said. They don’t want to have to pay the cost of insurance or maintenance — even parking is an expense in bigger cities.
“It’s like, ‘I can just go in an Uber on dad’s credit card and go wherever I want.’’’
Advocates believe, though, that automated vehicles will eventually be a boon to the state’s older residents.
Driverless vehicles represent “an incredible opportunity for the elderly and those with disabilities,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored this year’s bill that tweaked regulations for self-driving vehicles. He’s also the founder of the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit.
Will we see a time when most of the vehicles on the road will be automated?
“Absolutely, but I think it’s decades away,” Brandes, who represents Pinellas County, said in a phone interview.
Driverless trucks have already been tested on the Florida Turnpike, he said. By 2025 to 2030, “you’ll begin to see them roll out in a more meaningful way.”
The biggest shift in the next 10 years will be toward electric vehicles, he said. Up to 20 percent of all vehicles sold by 2030 may be electric.
“And you’ll see an ongoing march toward more automation. Whether that’s full autonomy or just highly automated, you’ll see some combination of electrification and automation.”
Accidents involving automated vehicles are news, but Brandes says 95 percent of all accidents are caused by human error. “To the extent we can reduce human error, we should be able to make roads radically safer and save thousands of lives.”
Since so many of the programs are experimental, there’s not much meaningful data on accident rates, but Brulte thinks automated vehicles will ultimately be proven safer.
“The vehicles are not distracted,” he said. “They’re not staring at a phone, and distracted driving is an epidemic. Self-driving cars have one mission — to get you to your destination safely.”