Residents of Gainesville, Florida, may be a few years away from seeing self-driving cars commonly roaming the streets, but two weeks ago, they were in full effect.
Scientists and technology gurus showed off a number of vehicles that have autonomous features as part of the fifth annual University Transportation Centers Conference.
“It’s not at the point that you can take a nap,” said University of Florida Director of Transportation Lily Elefteriadou. “We’re not there yet, but we’ve taken some of the very important initial steps.”
The two-day conference, which the University of Florida hosted this year, drew about 230 people from 10 universities around the country’s southeast region. At least 100 spectators gathered at the old Regional Transit System site, at 100 SE 10th Avenue in Gainesville, to catch a glimpse of self-driving cars in action. Some even got to ride in one.
UF showed off its NaviGator, a self-driving SUV, simulating a traffic light stop from across the lot. A group of students sent signals to the vehicle as it was rolling, letting it know when an imaginary traffic light would turn red.
Patrick Neal, a UF graduate student, who drove in the NaviGator as a precaution, maneuvered the vehicle from a touchscreen pad. An Xbox controller on the ground, he said, could also control the vehicle, though he doesn’t recommend it.
Neal said if the driver attempts to brake at the same time the vehicle autonomously does, the vehicle brakes hard enough to send its passengers a few inches off the seat. He said the vehicle is not recommended for full autonomous street use yet, but it’s getting close.
Clark Letter, a research assistant professor at UF, has been working with the city of Gainesville, university and Department of Traffic to sync street signals with vehicles. The city plans to roll out autonomous RTS shuttles, which will travel between downtown and UF. Letter said the parties hope to use the street-light technology for the project as early as spring 2018 or fall 2019.
“We’re just working together,” Letter said. “I think in a lot of places you have a university doing one thing and a city doing its own thing. We’re really trying to get that collaboration between the university and state to allow us access to their signals and data.”
If UF does gain the needed information, Letter added, it will fuel future research.
A sleek Tesla vehicle was noticeably on hand at the event, attracting many visitors to its front seat. A driver also took people down South Main Street and back to the RTS site.
The electric-powered vehicle has no motor, doesn’t need oil or fluid changes, and is smooth on the road. The $110,000 vehicle also has a large touchscreen, reminiscent of an enlarged iPad. During a test drive, however, the vehicle appeared to react late to a stopped vehicle at a red light, at which point the driver took control, stopping the vehicle inches from the one in front of it.
Tesla not yet ready
Experts on site said Tesla vehicles aren’t ready for full autonomous use on the roads, yet, and would be better served on the highway than in a neighborhood.
Elefteriadou warns Tesla owners they still need to be alert behind the wheel.
In 2016, a man driving a Tesla on autopilot was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in Williston in Levy County. The car, which uses cameras to detect objects, confused the white part of the tractor with the sky, Tesla officials previously said. Autonomous Tesla vehicles are banned in several states, including Texas, Virginia, Alabama, New Jersey and Michigan.
“It doesn’t recognize the colors of the traffic lights, but if there’s a vehicle in front of you it will stop,” Elefteriadou said.
Angel Catalan, a customer service specialist for Tesla in Jacksonville, said the car is automatically updated via the internet with the latest configurations and changes, similar to a smartphone update.
Elefteriadou said she expects to see more autonomous vehicles cruising the streets in the next five years or so, noting that several major manufacturers are already working on the technology.
“We’re making small incremental improvements to the vehicles and their new features, but every time I turn around I hear of something new that’s being developed.”
THE GAINSVILLE SUN (FLORIDA)/TNS