Editorial: Brave New (Smart) Roads Coming to Florida

According to the Florida Times-Union Editorial Board, Florida should continue to welcome self-driving technology but also be prepared to make common-sense safety features.


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- In 1929, when the city of Jacksonville presented its first real planning document, there still were a few horses on the city streets.

In the early 1900s, this city was making the transition to automobiles as Model Ts were affordable for many.

Now in the 21st century, another major transition is in the works: Driverless cars already are on the streets in a few numbers.

Elected leaders in Florida want to make this state the most aggressive in the nation for welcoming autonomous vehicles.

In Jacksonville, the driverless cars being prepared for the Ultimate Urban Circulator by JTA will use a separated track at first, but eventually they can share the road with other vehicles.

This will require some major changes in road design and regulations. But probably the biggest change will be in our state of mind.

There is a reluctance to turn over the wheel to a mechanical brain, yet statistics show that most crashes are caused by human error, not breakdowns in the vehicles.

One of the leaders in the driverless car movement is Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg. He points out that 94% of serious car crashexs are caused by human error.

He says Florida should be an ideal test track for driverless cars with its lack of snow.

With so many senior citizens and tourists in this state, driverless cars could improve safety and ease congestion, reports a story on the onezero website.

That’s a controversial contention because driverless cars could actually increase the number of vehicles on the roads. Then again, perhaps they would be less likely to speed and tailgate.

So with advocacy by Brandes in the Senate and Rep. Jason Fischer of Jacksonville in the House, Florida is seeking to be a leader in accepting driverless cars.

In fact, Florida does not require companies to register for permits for driverless vehicles.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill that would give a green light for vehicles without drivers. And Brandes has been inserting driverless-friendly wording into many transportation bills.

Does this mean a Wild West mentality such as driverless 18-wheelers in school zones?

What happens when there is a crash? Who would be responsible?

What happens when a driverless car actually stops when a traffic light turns yellow, resulting in rear-end crashes as drivers are preparing to speed through the intersection?

Do robot cars need to be trained to drive more like people? And is that a benefit?

In 2016, a Florida man died when his vehicle, in semi-autonomous mode, failed to see an 18-wheeler crossing in front of him in Williston outside Gainesville. He died.

The vehicle’s speed and steering were being managed by Tesla’s Autopilot, which is just one phase of automated driving.

The Society of Automotive Engineers separates driving automation into six levels from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation).

Tesla’s Autopilot is rated a 2 or 3, meaning it requires a driver to be present and to take control when necessary.

Perhaps drivers used to using cruise control will be eased toward full automation with a series of assist features.

For communities like the Villages in Central Florida or Nocatee in Northeast Florida, where golf carts already share the roads, self-driving cars might make sense. Voyage, a Silicon Valley company, is operating its driverless cars in the Villages.

Sharing the roads in heavily traveled urban areas might be more of a challenge where speeding, tailgating and aggressive lane-changing are common.

Nevertheless, Ford has been testing driverless cars in the Miami area.

In June, a self-driving truck made a 9.4-mile demonstration ride on the Florida Turnpike, reported the Miami Herald.

Tampa has received a federal grant to test driverless cars and trucks on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

We’re used to giving orders to our smart speaker; will we be telling our cars how to drive, too?

Florida should welcome the new technology but be prepared to make common-sense safety features as well.

In 1929, practically all the horses were gone from Jacksonville’s city streets.

There may come a day when drivers behind the wheel are optional.

(c)2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

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