The transportation bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month explicitly allows riderless cars to hit public roads for research.
(TNS) -- A new Florida law puts the state at the helm of researching what may be transportation's most futuristic technology: self-driving cars.
The transportation bill signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month explicitly allows riderless cars to hit public roads for research. The bill brings the idea of autonomous cars, still under a controlled setting, closer to reality in the state, if not the country.
Nevada passed laws encouraging autonomous vehicle testing in 2011 and was followed by Florida and California the next year. Today, states have provided money toward its study and allowed for general research, but stop short of allowing the vehicle to be riderless and not requiring a special license to operate, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.
The new Florida law changes that.
"Florida was the second state to look at this and by far has taken a leadership role among the states," said Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a sponsor of the bill.
The technology has also gotten national interest, as President Barack Obama's latest budget proposal allocated nearly $4 billion over 10 years to research self-driving vehicles.
The legislation could pique automakers' interest in coming to the state for testing.
"[We worked] with partners at Audi and partners at Google – the original equipment manufacturers" on the bill's details, Brandes said.
Although the legislation could bring in business, a central pillar of Scott's term, Brandes said self-driving cars could ultimately be the best option for road safety. Google's self-driving car had its first at-fault accident – a fender-bender with a bus – this February, according to published reports.
"We've been able to get the legislators comfortable with this technology," Brandes said."Many of them have experienced it personally."
For George Gilhooey, the Central Florida office leader for HNTB Corp., an engineering consulting firm, the new law isn't just the bellwether for safety or new business, but could have more immediate results for traffic and road capacity, especially on busy highways like I-4.
The new legislation requires the Florida Department of Transportation to study what is classified as the second level of autonomous cars: cruise control and lane centering when the car is on a highway.
The technology is not as evolved as a full-blown autonomous vehicle, but can conserve space on highways and create a draft effect, saving fuel costs.
One aspect of that is truck platooning, which links vehicles together like a train on the highway, separated by an invisible but calculated distance between each truck through vehicle-to-vehicle communication.
"[The law] allows truck platooning, which has got immediate opportunities. That's one where the technology is already very mature. … You actually improve the roadways' overall ability to handle more vehicles," Gilhooey said.
Trucking and cargo transportation companies would see a large benefit from the technology, which could be online much sooner than a self-driving car.
In the future, drivers could simply use an app and have a robotic chauffeur arrive at their door. Uber partnered with Carnegie Mellon University last year and announced it would research autonomy technology. Brandes said that Babcock Ranch in Fort Myers and other private developers were looking to build developments around autonomous vehicles.
"I think for right now, we're evolving into this space, and whether it's 2018 or 2025, we see that technology is coming online relatively quickly and it's exciting," Brandes said.
©2016 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.