(TNS) -- Top Jacksonville transit officials expect driverless vehicles to be a part of the city's public and personal transportation future.
Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nathaniel Ford said JTA officials are in discussions with some autonomous vehicle manufacturers and he hopes to have one of them soon bring a vehicle to Jacksonville for a demonstration. He said their target is to have a pilot program in the next two years.
"I would love to develop some sort of a pilot program [with an autonomous shuttle], but that is in the early stages of how that will work," said Brad Thoburn, vice president of planning, development and innovation for JTA. He said they must determine what is feasible for Jacksonville and a pilot would determine how a vehicle would work here.
Some companies and cities are already exploring pilot programs to use autonomous shuttles for public transportation although those are in very early stages. Tesla already unveiled cars with autopilot and other companies including Google and BMW are years into testing, bringing closer the reality of self-driving cars becoming an integral part of public and personal transportation.
Ford said JTA officials decided to maintain and extend the Skyway rail system. He said doing that with the current 27-year-old technology would be ill-advised, particularly with developing technology for autonomous vehicles.
Ford said the original Skyway was expensive and never lived up to its potential, and his staff is doing its research to avoid that mistake. The Skyway, with design, construction and materials, cost $182 million for 2.5 miles of tracks and eight train stations. The driverless system was ahead of its time.
The structure of the Skyway system is sound, but the vehicles are obsolete and expensive to maintain, according to JTA.
JTA staff members are familiarizing themselves with the technologies and determining when will be the "sweet spot" for JTA to make the transition to include autonomous vehicles in the system, Ford said. He wants JTA to transition to the technologies without gambling, embarrassing the agency or wasting money.
This year, the focus is on research and development, identifying funding, identifying partners, and looking at what locations would make sense for a pilot -- such as down Bay Street or on a college campus, Ford said.
Ford said they want to keep the Skyway running for another five years with improvements and investments, but in the meantime are establishing a plan to move forward using emerging technologies.
The new system could cover a loop incorporating key locations in and near downtown, possibly including Riverside and the sports complex that includes EverBank Field and the arena, Ford said. He said they must consider connectivity to those and other areas and using Skyway to do that is cost prohibitive.
The optimal system would be flexible and able to travel at street level, allowing it to serve new areas, or on the elevated platform currently supporting Skyway.
"It will not be taking Skyway and extending concrete," Ford said. The extensions will "look vastly different than today," he said.
Ford said the proposed Skyway plans, to be unveiled at the Thursday JTA board meeting, could surprise people.
JTA executives are contemplating the future and impact for Jacksonville as there is news of Tesla's continued developments with self-driving vehicles, competition from Henrik Fisker, BMW and other companies, a driverless truck delivering Budweiser beer in Colorado, and successful tests of self-driving taxis and shuttles in Singapore. Some vehicles already on the road come equipped with certain self-driving capabilities including braking and parallel parking.
Thoburn said JTA must look at not only how JTA can implement the developing technology, but also how it will affect transportation here and how it would change how JTA must do business. There will be effects on demand, congestion and parking.
"This changes the marketplace," Thoburn said just as Uber and Lyft changed the transportation industry.
He said it could be a problem if people do not pay attention to the possible effects -- as there has been from Netflix and other technology on the movie industry, or from those ride-sharing companies on transportation.
"Technology is going to disrupt transportation over the next five to 10 years. Probably five," said Thoburn, who attended a Driverless Cities Summit this fall.
Even with all of the different scenarios and possibilities, he said there is a consensus.
"The technology is happening faster than we realize," Thoburn said. The technology "will be ready before we're ready."
The company Local Motors began a pilot offering free rides on a self-driving vehicle known as Olli in Maryland this summer, with the vehicle expected to move slowly at speeds of between 3 and 8 miles per hour. Olli was expected to begin moving faster as the company became more confident in its abilities, according to a June report in The Washington Post.
Olli, which has a maximum speed of 25 mph, can transport up to 12 people, according to Local Motors. Local Motors expected to begin pilots late this year in Miami-Dade County and Las Vegas.
The vehicle was incapable of traveling on highways, according to the Post report.
People are able to interact conversationally with the vehicle, even asking about Olli's driving decisions. People can ask for recommendations on restaurants and historical sites, according to Local Motors.
Olli, according to the manufacturer, is electric, has self-driving software allowing it to respond faster than humans, is equipped with lidar and optical cameras to allow the vehicle to see in all directions, and a human can monitor the vehicle at all times. Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging, which uses a laser light to measure the distance to an object.
The vehicles are equipped with technology "to analyze and learn from high volumes of transportation data, produced by more than 30 sensors embedded throughout the vehicle," according to a release from Local Motors and IBM.
Possible angst, safety issues
Some current concerns for JTA with the autonomous vehicles include the service life of the vehicles, the unproven technology and the possible need for significant modifications to the train stations and beam that currently guides the Skyway, but positives include the potential to be the most flexible option and allows the use of the latest technology, according to a JTA presentation on the Skyway modernization program.
Ford said there are legal and legislative hurdles to consider. He believes it could be another 10 years before a driverless system could be unleashed onto the streets without concerns about liability. He pointed to problem-solving programming that would have to determine whether a vehicle, in a difficult situation, would run into a person or a tree, and about security concerns with a rider on a driverless vehicle at night.
He said laws will need to be changed. Ford said he is uncomfortable putting automated vehicles into traffic without all of the issues resolved.
Thoburn said issues include regulation and policing.
Also, Ford said, they must be very deliberate with 350 bus drivers and the possible "angst" the situation could create for them as JTA explores driverless transportation.
Along with legislative, legal and logistical issues, there are safety concerns, including the first fatal crash of a car in self-driving mode in May in Williston, Fla. The federal government is investigating the design and performance of the Tesla Model S sedan that apparently failed to apply the brakes because it did not differentiate between the white side of a turning tractor-trailer and the bright sky, according to an Associated Press report.
"Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert," according to a statement from Tesla at the time. Tesla indicated the fatality was the first known death in more than 130 million miles of operation in autopilot, according to the Associated Press report.
When people hear news about the Tesla vehicle that crashed, Thoburn said people do not trust the technology.
Eventually, the hope is autonomous vehicles will increase safety, since the vehicles could communicate with each other and a majority of crashes are due to human error, while reducing congestion and emissions.
"It allows everything to be safer and faster," Thoburn said.
©2016 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.