Self-driving cars may get boost from $90 million test track being built near Orlando

Florida’s best hope to develop self-driving vehicles might lie with an iconic-looking campus and a $90 million test track being built 40 miles southwest of Orlando.

The futuristic concept of driverless cars is fast emerging at Florida Polytechnic University, a campus with a space-age look halfway between Orlando and Tampa. With budding plans for ways to use the vehicles in several Florida cities, the state is just getting its foot into the competitive niche even as Detroit and other markets roll out prototypes and shuttles.

Officials hope the university’s partnership with MIT and the 400-acre SunTrax test track being built nearby will set their efforts apart.

“The biggest advantage we have is our SunTrax,” said Florida Polytechnic Junior Saivamsi Hanamanthu. “That will give us a large advantage compared to other universities.”

In recent weeks, construction began on the eight-lane test track, which is a partnership between Florida Poly and the Florida Department of Transportation. The first phase will include an oval track with eight lanes to test tolling hardware and software. As soon as next year, work is expected to start on a 200-acre infield slated to be the hub for automated vehicle testing. Plans call for a learning lab, simulated city center, suburban- and rural-style roads, intersections with signals, interchange ramps, roundabouts and various types of pavement.

As the track progresses, Poly students will refine their autonomous-vehicle game.

Hanamanthu, 19, recently showed U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta a foot-high model he built with teammates during the spring semester. As the fall semester started, his team was hunting for an affordable electric golf cart they could retrofit with LIDAR sensors, which map three-dimensional objects by bouncing laser beams off surroundings.

Just starting its second class on autonomous vehicles, the newly accredited university enters the self-driving arena even as the University of Michigan prepares to launch driverless shuttles. Lawrenceville Technological University near Detroit has started work on an autonomous campus taxi. And Innova EV is developing electric and autonomous car shares in the Chicago area between campuses and neighborhoods.

Speaking last week in a Poly class during a conference of real estate brokers and developers, Assistant Professor Dean Bushey cast a broad vision of how he expects the self-driving vehicles to emerge on public roads during the next five years as automakers including Tesla and Audi begin to produce more-advanced models.

The retired Air Force colonel predicted the cars will become mainstream, becoming 20 percent of the traffic by 2025. Costs decline and access increases every year, he added. Local governments and the real estate industry, Bushey said, will have to grapple with new uses for old parking garages and swelling demand for drop-off lanes, He sees perpetually moving autonomous vehicles largely replacing traditional cars, which are now parked 22 hours daily on average.

In Florida, Poly’s AV contingent is working with the developer of the proposed Harmony Lake Eloise community, near Winter Haven, to create a shuttle for future residents. Several Poly students are devising plans for Jacksonville to replace its monorail with driverless transport. And an autonomous bike project has emerged at the school.

Concerns about safety have marked the experimental launch of the vehicles. In May 2016, for instance, the driver of a semi-autonomous Tesla was killed in a collision with a semi-truck on U.S. Highway 27 near Williston. Advocates of autonomous vehicles cite them as a way to cut transportation fatalities, which reached 39,000 last year, according to the federal government.

Bushey said safety is the school’s top priority and a leading concern among most members of the public.

“An older generation believes they are not safe, but millennials want to build it and get in it — yesterday,” he said.

mshanklin@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5538

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