TAMPA — As crazy as it might sound, the day motorists will be able to take their hands off the wheel and let their car do the driving could be just around the bend.
Transportation experts gathered Thursday said advances in computer software, sensors and global positioning systems have made driverless vehicles possible for widespread use within a decade or so.
"This technology is not 22nd century technology; it is here," said Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation.
The FDOT, along with the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research and other groups, hosted the first Florida Automated Vehicles Summit to help position the state as a leader in putting driverless cars on the road. The conference continues today at the Tampa Marriott Waterside.
Florida is one of just three states — California and Nevada are the others — that has passed legislation allowing automated vehicles to be tested on public roads. Bill sponsor state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he sees them as the future of transportation as early as 2025.
"We know that every manufacturer as well as Google is working on this," he said. "This is the game changer. It's as big as the change from buggy whips to the car."
He envisions automated vehicles being used at ports to move around freight, then expanding to highways for daily commutes and travel. Eventually, driverless cars could be used like a taxi service.
Google has taken the lead, developing a driverless "Google car" that has attracted the interest of automakers worldwide. The car, which has logged more than 500,000 autonomous miles, has a range finder mounted to the roof that allows it to drive itself using lasers, computer-generated maps and onboard sensors.
Transportation leaders said automated vehicles would improve safety and decrease the costs associated with accidents, from insurance to doctor visits. They quoted statistics showing that about 90 percent of all fatal car crashes are caused by operator error.
Jason Bittner, director of USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research, said Florida is an ideal testing ground for automated vehicles. The weather is predictable — without snow that can be tricky for driverless cars — and the area has a track record of automated technology. Tampa International Airport was the first airport in the country to use driverless people movers linking the main terminal to the gates.
For a test track, engineers could use the reversible lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, he said.
As part of last year's legislation, the Department of Highway Safety is working a study due February on what the state would need to do to develop and implement the automated technology. While the cars wouldn't need additional infrastructure, they could require changes to intersections, signs and highway ramps.
Jim Sebesta, a member of the Florida Transportation Commission, said driverless cars are a natural progression in the evolution of automobiles, but it won't happen overnight.
"I think convincing the public will be very difficult," he said. "The older folks like me will be slower to adopt it, but the younger people will be all over it."
Some of the technology is already on the streets. Cars on display outside the conference come with optional packages that adjust cruise control to keep pace with traffic and alert drivers when they drift out of a lane. Mercedes-Benz advertises a vehicle that can stop in front of an obstacle if the driver becomes distracted.
Alain Kornhauser, a Princeton University professor who has studied self-driving cars, said the Google car reduced the chance of an accident by 71 percent. While significant, he said, it may not be enough to entice consumers to pay a few thousand dollars extra for the feature.
"Safety hasn't been great in selling cars or everyone would be buying Volvos," he said, referring to the brand's strong safety records.
He asked the audience of 200 how many owned a Volvo. Two people raised their hands.
Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.