TAMPA — A gleaming silver Audi glided along the expressway Monday, its driver chatting with passengers without his hands on the wheel or eyes on the road.
When a sport utility vehicle in front halted, the sedan came to a graceful stop without any guidance from the driver.
Elevated commuter lanes on the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway were closed midday Monday for the Audi car company to take its latest driverless car out on real road conditions. A traffic jam was created with five other vehicles to test the automated car's sensor capabilities. The model, a Sport Quattro Laserlight unveiled in April, has 22 sensors that detect other vehicles and instruct the car to react to changes in traffic.
Gov. Rick Scott took the first ride. Afterward, he said riding in the computer-enhanced car didn't seem different from being in a regular one.
The expressway that connects Tampa and Brandon is one of just 10 approved sites nationwide where researchers can study the safety and performance of automated vehicles. Florida is one of three states that allow self-driving cars to be tested on public roads.
"I hope everyone that thinks about doing this moves to Florida and brings their research here," Scott said at a news conference.
Accompanied by a caravan of cars by Audi that were filled with news photographers, the car branded "Audi Connect" made its way across the expressway, not reaching speeds greater than 25 mph. Five different simulations were conducted, and the car had to stop after each demo to recharge its sensors. It's normal for the test car to need to restart after each solo maneuver, said Brad Stertz, a communications manager for Audi.
Scott said that the expressway test project provides an opportunity for jobs in science, technology and research because there are few of its kind in the nation. The event was the first in a series of campaign stops Scott will make this week to champion "jobs for the next generation."
Filip Brabec, Audi's director of product planning, said the company hopes advancements in technology will reduce the number of car crashes.
Audi chose Florida to test its automated car partly because of the climate, Stertz said — engineers wanted to see it would perform in sweltering heat.
As the driverless car crept across the expressway, an Audi employee sat in the back seat and monitored its metrics on a computer screen, analyzing how quickly the car responded to traffic movements. Engineers will use that information when the car is shipped back to production headquarters in Northern California to make improvements, Stertz said.
Audi has joined a number of other companies, like Google and Volvo, which are exploring the capabilities of driverless cars.
The German car company has said that cars with automated technology will be commercially sold in five years. But Brabec cautioned that those models will have limited automation. Completely driverless cars where passengers can "sit in the back seat with a latte" while a car runs will not be available for 20 years.
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