TAMPA — Imagine driving downtown without hitting a red light, thanks to traffic-light synchronization. Or the brakes in a car activating when a pedestrian unexpectedly steps into the road. Or never having to worry about merging into a car hiding in the blind spot because the two vehicles were "talking to each other" and recognized the hazard before the drivers did.
These are the type of advances that could be on the horizon, thanks to $2.4 million in federal funding that the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority landed for a connected-vehicle program.
That seed money will turn the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway into a 14-mile-long experimental lab to test next-generation driverless car technology in the bay area — technology that could also be used to bring immediate relief to Tampa Bay's traffic woes.
"We're bringing transportation into the 21st century," U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said. "And oh, by the way, Tampa is at the center of it all."
Nelson announced the U.S. Department of Transportation contract Monday. Tampa is one of four cities nationwide, including New York City and Ann Arbor, Mich., to take part in the pilot program. The fourth city was not identified.
The federal contract — the first installment in a three-stage process that could total more than $17 million — will be used to improve traffic flow with synchronized traffic signals. That, plus other connected-vehicle technologies, should enhance road safety. It could also reduce stop-and-go traffic, reducing pollution and the carbon footprint of Tampa Bay.
Ann Arbor was the first city to join the pilot program in 2012 when the DOT equipped about 3,000 cars, trucks and buses with technology to "talk" to each other, allowing them to avoid crashes and improve traffic flow.
The DOT is testing different applications of the technology in different cities, said Peter Rogoff, the U.S. undersecretary of transportation for policy. While Ann Arbor's focus was on improving communication between cars, Tampa will be a prime testing ground for studying how to decongest highways at peak travel times and expand safety applications.
Tampa Bay recently ranked No. 11 in the nation for traffic congestion, according to a report from TomTom International, which makes GPS units.
"In Ann Arbor, we've done a lot by just knowing we can have vehicles communicate with each other," Rogoff said. "I think Tampa's going to take it to the next step, and that is, 'How do we use that knowledge to save lives and save travel time?' "
The pilot program will outfit cars, buses and roadside equipment with technology that will allow them to communicate with one another about traffic conditions. For instance, smartphones and smart car apps could give real-time warnings and alerts to pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers about potential hazards and when it's safe to cross or change lanes.
The equipment would make cars "smarter," allowing them to communicate and respond to changes in conditions. This technology is what makes driverless cars possible.
Audi tested its latest driverless car on the Selmon Expressway last year. The vehicles were tested in closed circuits and alongside regular traffic. But expressway authority executive director Joe Wagoner said it will be decades before anyone sees the reality — and benefits — of fully automated vehicles.
"It's really the holy grail of technology for transportation," state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said at the news conference. "The ability to add safety and fuel efficiency, and ease congestion.
"Autonomous vehicle technology will be as big of a deal as the Model T."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.