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Autonomous Vehicles Slowly Merge into Real-Life Traffic

To catch up with Arizona, Florida last month enacted some of the most friendly autonomous car legislation in the nation, and transportation-planning agencies and Orlando are launching their own assessments.

(TNS) — Asking a driverless minivan to join suburban traffic required pushing a button labeled “START RIDE.”

What followed was a cool preview of the future obsolescence of people who drive. The trip for less than an hour was a bit unsettling – thinking of the machine’s ongoing torrent of life-and-limb calculations – but without incident.

The recent demonstration was by Waymo, a subsidiary of Google. Its self-driving cars are the product of a spaceship’s worth of lasers, radar and cameras, massive computing power, a boggling amount of code and millions of training-wheel miles.

“Like any human driver, our self-driving cars have to answer four questions,” Waymo spokeswoman Julianne McGoldrick said. “Where am I, what’s around me, what will happen next and what should I do?”

Yearning to catch up with Arizona, long a leading host for research and development, Florida last month enacted some of the most friendly autonomous car legislation in the nation.

“Florida is open for business,” said state Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, who sponsored the bill that negates any need for a licensed driver in an autonomous car. “I’d love for Florida to be the rollout for one of these big companies.”

With little autonomous experience, Central Florida’s bus and transportation-planning agencies and the city of Orlando are launching assessments of what looks to revolutionize travel.

“It’s not so much a car as a smart phone on wheels,” said Eric Hill of MetroPlan Orlando.

Fleets of autonomous cars on the nation’s road today are perfecting self-driving technologies and, in trials limited to specific communities and enrolled passengers, are gaining experience for how to function as self-driving taxis.

Nearly all of them have people in drivers’ seats as “trained” or “safety” drivers, who take control during malfunctions or emergencies. Waymo has begun to deploy cars for testing on Phoenix-area roads without passengers and without trained drivers.

The answer for when autonomous taxis become readily available, displacing today’s versions of Uber, Lyft and conventional cabs, could come from a Waymo car, where a digital voice reminds you to “buckle your seat belt.”

The road ahead, while promising safer, cheaper and faster travel, is challenging.

Phil Koopman, professor of computer and electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and founder of an autonomous technologies safety-consulting firm, said much research remains before full-scale, self-driving travel is viable.

“The question of when you will get in a car, drive anywhere in the country, while you are asleep in the back, that’s years and years and years away,” Koopman said.

The more likely path, said Koopman and other experts, is a progression that starts with vehicles such as municipal fleets of low-speed buses and semi-trucks on certain stretches of road.

The industry also faces a perplexing array of state laws, tepid consumer confidence for safety and a potentially high cost for cars.

That’s from a survey by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, which is holding its national Automated Vehicles Symposium in Orlando July 15 through July 18, with the “brightest minds in the tech and automotive space.”

“It’s going to be a trickle effect,” said Greg Krueger of transportation consultant HNTB Corp. “We’re going to see some special-use cases happening rather quickly in the next couple of years.”

Autonomous taxis already operate in Florida. The company Voyage of California has been testing a “handful” of driverless cars at The Villages retirement community in Lake, Marion and Sumter counties.

Speeds there generally are less than 25 mph, traffic is relatively tame and roads have been intensely mapped.

“You can really get to know the operational area very well,” Voyage spokesman Justin Erlich said.

Voyage taxis are serving a small number of pioneer riders selected from 1,200 applicants. A full launch without safety drivers is yet to be scheduled.

“We think it will likely be sometime in the next year but, again, we are keeping it fluid,” Erlich said. “What is most critical to us is safety.”

Universities and communities nationally have begun to deploy demonstration shuttles that are self-driving. In Central Florida, a pair of 15-passenger autonomous shuttles are slated to start operating this summer in the Lake Nona community.

Ford, GM, Uber, Lyft and Tesla are among leaders in developing self-driving technologies. Waymo, generally acknowledged as among the furthest along, has nearly 600 Chrysler Pacificas in the Phoenix, Austin and San Francisco areas and in Michigan and Washington states.

There have been no serious accidents, said McGoldrick, Waymo’s spokeswoman.

Waymo won’t say what its cars cost. With their spinning sensors and domed tops, they suggest vintage ambulances outfitted by the Jetsons. Those sensors, however, can virtually see through objects.

“I think the vehicles are really good at picking up things that you don’t even see and our riders mention this all the time,” McGoldrick said.

Waymo’s van performed unremarkably along residential streets and multilane boulevards.

A double-parked truck blocked the view of oncoming traffic; the van merged cautiously as a human would. A portable sign in the middle of a street announced a 15 mph school zone; the van read it and slowed.

A notable quirk was unyielding precision. Changing lanes along an empty road, for example, was more immediate and concise than how a human typically would do it.

Waymo considers its key challenge now to be user friendliness.

“We have this technology that we have been working on developing for 10 years,” McGoldrick said. “How do we make this into a product that people can use in their everyday lives?”

For example, taxis drivers and passengers can point to or talk about where to get in or out. Waymo vans don’t yet understand waving so the company is establishing pickup zones.

The company eased into taxi duty last year with hundreds of riders in the Phoenix area and then expanded into its Waymo One brand for more than 1,000 participants. Ride charges are less than Uber and Lyft.

Tiffany Sellwood, a south Phoenix resident with two sons, 10 and 14, takes Waymo to school, church, music lessons, yoga and shopping.

“Once we rode it eight or nine times, I got really used to feeling safe and my kids did, too,” she said, adding that not all friends are persuaded.

“There is a lot of fear and skepticism in autonomous driving especially in the parental realm,” Sellwood said. “A lot of our friends are surprised that I would be so open to it.”

But she described Waymo vans behaving as though they took driver’s ed to heart.

“It’s a bit refreshing to be in a car where I literally feel the car is being driven with 100 percent focus on driving,” Sellwood said.

Mykel Kochenderfer, a Stanford University computer-science professor, said he is “excited about the progress” that companies have made in their limited rollouts. But serious challenges remain, he said.

Sensors have improved rapidly in the past decade, Kochenderfer said, but the task of processing their data “remains challenging.” And sensors can’t see everything.

“You don’t get to directly observe the state of mind of drivers, Kochenderfer said. “You often just see the effects of their state of mind.”

Koopman, the Carnegie Mellon professor, said “normal stuff” isn’t a problem.

“It’s very easy to drive around in a Waymo for an hour and everything works perfectly and you think ‘oh, it’s good.’ But drive around long enough, something weird is going to happen.”

Valley Metro, which runs the Phoenix area’s bus and light-rail systems, has partnered with Waymo and Arizona State University to study how express-bus riders will adapt to autonomous cars to begin and end their commutes.

“We don’t know what we don’t know but we are willing to find out,” said Angie Devore, a project manager.

Scott Smith, Valley Metro’s chief executive officer, said a popular narrative is that within several years autonomous vehicles will rule the roads.

A realistic scenario, he said, is a gradual migration to when driverless cars provide seamless links between home, work, buses and trains.

“It’s really unknown how that’s going to change our lives,” Smith said. “That’s part of the sex appeal. What’s going to happen is somewhat of a mystery. People just know it’s going to happen.”

©2019 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.