City, UF plan for driverless cars on city streets

Andrew Caplan @AACaplan

Self-driving cars — albeit with human engineers at the ready to take the wheel, just in case — may be cruising the streets of Gainesville sooner than expected.

The University of Florida, city of Gainesville and Florida Department of Transportation announced a partnership to develop a test for autonomous vehicles throughout the streets of Gainesville, coming as early as this fall.

City and UF officials say the partnership is the first of its kind in the state.

The tests will consist of driverless cars and smart devices being synced to traffic lights and sensors around Northwest 13th Street and West University Avenue through use of Traffic Technology Services, a data partner of Audi, and Connected Signals, a partner of BMW.

UF’s Director of Communications Margot Winick said no specific test dates have been set yet, “but things are coming together rapidly on this project.”

“By July, we will have a plan for the different tests that will take place,” she said.

The project’s goals include improving safety on and around campus, to facilitate the development of advanced technologies invented at UF and to learn how driverless cars react to pedestrians, bicyclists and traffic.

Lily Elefteriadou, the lead researcher and director at UF’s Transportation Institute, said those very scenarios make Gainesville an ideal location for testing.

“We’re not there yet, but it allows us to make advances,” she said.

The state’s transportation department is funding the experiment for roughly $1.5 million a year for the next five years. Further funding will come from other sources, Elefteriadou said.

The initiative comes on the heels of UF officials also announcing awards of more than $300,000 in research funds to seven UF and city of Gainesville projects, which include the self-driving vehicle study.

In February, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and UF President Kent Fuchs signed a pact to address issues identified in each party’s strategic plans. The partnership aligns with goals of implementing alternative transportation throughout Gainesville and showcasing UF as a pre-eminent university.

UF already has an autonomous hybrid Toyota Highlander, nicknamed the NaviGator, with sensors that researchers test on closed courses. Still, UF engineers ride along during tests with the ability to take control at any time. The forthcoming tests will be done in actual traffic, but engineers will sit behind the wheel, just in case.

As far as autonomous vehicles being safer than real drivers, Elefteriadou said, that has yet to be proven.

“We’re taking it slowly,” she said of the test plan. “It’ll be a process.”

Contact reporter Andrew Caplan at andrew.caplan@gvillesun.com or on Twitter @AACaplan.

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