In 2019, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill removing unnecessary obstacles that hinder the development of autonomous vehicle technology. The bill was intended to solidify Florida’s position as a leading state for transportation innovation.
At the time of the bill signing, State Senator Jeff Brandes, one of the state’s more forward-thinking and innovative lawmakers, declared, “Over the next 10 years we will see more innovation in the transportation industry than we have seen in the last 50 years.”
He was joined by State Rep. Jason Fischer, who was equally effusive about the importance of the bill.
“We here in Florida are pioneering the most exciting innovations in transportation,” Fischer said. “This bill on self-driving cars will usher in a new era of smart cities that will not only expand our economy but increase road safety and decrease traffic congestion.”
The bill was supposed to remove administrative roadblocks and bureaucratic red tape and herald an era of innovation that made self-driving cars a reality. And as part of that promise, Florida invested $150 million on Suntrax, a state-of-the-art Connected Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) testing facility located in Auburndale, between Lakeland and Orlando. The facility just came online this summer, and promises to help accelerate technology development.
But barring a major breakthrough in legitimate human-level artificial intelligence, (and no, ChatGPT doesn’t count), the world is only fractionally closer to realizing the dream of Level 5 automation than it was when an Ohio State University professor crammed computers into a 1967 Plymouth sedan and tested one of the world’s first self-steering car systems. Today, many cars boast automated tools like lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, and self-parking features, but we’re still not quite ready to put grandma in the back seat of our self-driving car and trust it to drop her off at the bingo parlor.
According to its website, Florida’s Department of Transportation is doing what it can to herald in this new era with a “road map” that lays out a myriad of CAV systems being tested in an effort to develop unified standards for the technology, but trying to make any sense of it leads to mass confusion among the literal alphabet soup of impressive-sounding acronyms that make it virtually impossible to decipher. From ATCMTD, to TSM&O SWZ, good luck figuring out if they are spending our tax dollars wisely.
We reached out to FDOT officials, but were informed they were traveling – apparently not autonomously – and so instead we were directed to the roadmap website for proof that FDOT is making major advances toward the future. And maybe they are.
Experts, however, have serious doubts about the viability of fully-autonomous vehicles, citing a range of complexities even the sharpest computer nerds will have trouble solving. It’s worth noting that the private sector has approached the problem largely with the idea of a completely self-contained automated car that can operate mostly independently from government-provided traffic support systems. But that requires cars that are crammed with expensive, bulky, and highly sophisticated sensors that aren’t cost-effective.
Less than a year ago, Ford and Volkswagen pulled the plug on a joint project aimed at self driving cars after concluding “that the large-scale profitable commercialization of self-driving cars was further out than expected.”
The oppposite approach, and the one that the Florida DOT roadmap appears to be following, is to create standardized external (i.e. roadside) communications systems, as part of a Connected Autonomous Vehicle (CAV) program that includes broadcasting critical information to cars in the vicinity, along with cameras, beacons, and sensors designed to aid self-driving cars with real-time information about the roadway ahead. Theoretically, this would also cut down on some of the bulky and expensive on-board sensor systems that are slowing development.
Marrying the two systems together might solve some of the bigger challenges, but they’ll also lead to a new wave of privacy nightmares, and that’s before we scratch the surface of cybersecurity concerns, including hacking operations that could easily turn I-95 into a 300-mile-long traffic pileup. Cybersecurity in this context isn’t just about protecting data and preventing system breaches – it’s about protecting lives. The threat of cyberattacks that could manipulate vehicle controls is real and profound. Then there’s data privacy, a cornerstone of our democracy. Each autonomous vehicle will generate a torrent of data that could, if mishandled, become a breach of personal privacy.
To bring all these pieces together, this technological symphony requires a grand orchestra drawing from virtually every scientific discipline, from computer science and artificial intelligence to materials science, electrical engineering, human psychology, urban planning, and a maturation of the legal environment surrounding autonomous vehicles. Ethical dilemmas will abound, including the classic game theory problem of how a CAV should react in a no-win situation.
Finally, there’s the human psychology element. For many, there exists a built-in resistance to fully autonomous vehicles. Plenty of people enjoy driving on the open road, love tinkering with old classic cars, and will never fully embrace modern CAV’s, meaning no matter how advanced the technology gets, we’ll likely always have to share the roadways with human-driven cars.
The future might be autonomous vehicles, but we have a very long way to go.