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Florida at vanguard of autonomous car future

If you are in the know, you don't call them "driverless cars," you call them autonomous cars. By whatever name, they are cars that drive themselves through the use of laser radar and sophisticated GPS.

And, Florida is vying to be a testing ground for this vehicle of the not-too-distant future. Florida is one of just three states (California and Nevada are the others) that have put laws on the books to govern the testing of autonomous cars.

That's, in part, thanks to state Sen. Jeffrey Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who co-sponsored the automated-vehicle law when he served in the House in 2012. He's convinced autonomous cars aren't just the stuff of Minority Report or I, Robot. But he knows full well that a "driverless" future can seem sci-fi scary. When he ran for state Senate, a PAC ad against him targeted his support of driverless cars: It featured an elderly woman almost run over by a driverless Prius.

Times correspondent Craig Kopp checked in with Brandes to talk about hands-free driving, the taxi of the near future and the ultimate designated driver.

What was the reaction when you first brought up the idea in the House?

We immediately had the vehicles there for people to touch and for people to ride in and for members to see. I think there was a pretty profound paradigm shift because all the technology was real. And for me, I had it up on I-10 going 70 miles an hour, pressed my finger on the little green button there, took my hand off the wheel and my foot off the pedals and for the next 10 miles that car drove itself — in traffic.

No touch of nerves?

No. It really felt like the car was kicking into cruise control, and it's pretty exciting because I was sitting next to an engineer from Google who had a computer open and was seeing pretty much exactly what the car was seeing and watching it make decisions. So, when a big truck pulled up next to us the car actually moved over a little bit in the lane because it was a little bit safer on that side of the lane instead of right next to the truck.

So what would be the next step to implementing this in Florida?

Essentially, every automobile manufacturer that I know of today is in some way, shape or form working on autonomous vehicle technology. The one really challenging thing with this technology is it doesn't work really well in snow. So we're looking for them to come explore Florida and use us as a test pad for this technology.

So we are more of an ideal environment for these cars to be tested and, perhaps, sometime in the future fully implemented in some way, shape or form?

There's no doubt in my mind these things are going to be implemented. Whether that's eight years from now or 15 years from now — that's debatable. But, it's coming and we need to be ready for it.

Would this take more cars off the road or put more cars on the road or just make all cars on the road smarter than some drivers who occasionally get behind the wheel?

I think it will do a little bit of everything. There's an interesting combination of Uber and Google car that I think you are going to see occur. Uber is a reservation service for limos and hired drivers. So imagine a combination of those two things. You could press a button on your iPhone and then a car shows up without a driver and it takes you to your next destination. So we can imagine a world where people can do away with one of your cars. I think it will really change people's lifestyles when they don't have to have a second vehicle and they'll have a, basically, on-demand car.

I was thinking I would own one car and it would take me to work and then go back and pick my wife up and take her to work.

It could be that way too. You'll still want the on-demand vehicle, right? When you want it and it's personalized to you but it might have an autonomous mode in it so when you get on the interstate and you want to be able to do some other work you can press the button and let it go. But I think the other way to think about it is you could have just an on-demand vehicle, so if I just wanted to go to the grocery store, why take my big vehicle? I'll just jump in the little community car that's electric and it takes me directly to Publix and drops me off and then goes back and joins the grid. If we think about vehicles and how much time they spend wasting the day in a parking lot — they're probably not utilized 95 percent of the day.

I was just picturing a New Year's Eve where I'm driving home after midnight but I'm not. I'm in my autonomous car and I look around and there's nobody driving any of the other cars and I actually feel safer than I ever have before.

That's exactly right because 95 percent of all accidents are caused by human error.

Craig Kopp is host of "All Things Considered" on WUSF.

Florida at vanguard of autonomous car future 08/29/13 [Last modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 12:04pm]

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