Within the next two decades, motorists in Gainesville may be sharing city roads with a fleet of self-driving buses synchronized to traffic signals and covered in sensors.
Bus attendants – not drivers – may be along for the ride, checking passes and standing by in case of emergency.
This isn’t science fiction. It’s likely to be “the wave of the future” for the Regional Transit System, Gainesville’s public transportation system, said Chip Skinner, a spokesperson for the city.
And with the help of a multi-million-dollar federal grant – and a partnership with the University of Florida and the Florida Department of Transportation – Skinner’s future forecast, of self-driving public vehicles, may be within reach.
This week, the city announced it has teamed up with UF and FDOT to research, develop and test autonomous vehicles and human-operated vehicles synced to traffic signals on campus and city streets.
“The ceiling is really limitless for this program right now,” Skinner said. “[It’s a] very exciting time with the advancements in technology and how quickly it’s moving forward.”
The goal is to improve transportation safety and efficiency by testing self-driving vehicles and what are called “connected vehicles” over the next five years, said Lily Elefteriadou, the director of the UF Transportation Institute.
Skinner said this is the first such program in the state to involve cooperation from a city, university and FDOT, one that could eventually lead to “connected” RTS buses or campus shuttles, and perhaps even self-driving ones.
In January, the UF Transportation Institute received a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation which will funnel up to $2.75 million per year over a five-year span toward researching and testing advanced transportation methods, Elefteriadou said.
Florida’s Department of Transportation will “cost share” up to $1.5 million per year, she said, adding that the institute would look for outside funding as well. The partnership comes about a year after Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill into law loosening restrictions on the testing of autonomous vehicles, although Elefteriadou cautioned that the autonomous vehicles to be tested would have a driver behind the wheel in case of emergency.
Skinner said no tax funds would be used for the initiative, so the Gainesville City Commission did not need to vote to approve the plan, but its members were briefed.
The first priority of the initiative, Elefteriadou said, would be to research and develop ways to sync traffic signals to traditional, human-driven vehicles to serve as a way to notify drivers of oncoming traffic, pedestrians or bicyclists at intersections. This communication from signal to driver, she said, would ideally reduce accidents and travel times. She said she hopes to begin testing this connected-vehicle technology by as early as the fall semester, which begins in August, and as late as the spring semester, which begins in January.
Elefteriadou said Gainesville is an ideal city in which to test self-driving vehicles and connected vehicles.
The city has relatively slow traffic speeds and a high volume of pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter drivers, which – along with a heavily-used transit system – make it a feasible “test bed” for such research.
“This provides a good way to test many different situations,” she said.
Skinner, who previously worked as an RTS spokesperson, said the city is currently in negotiations with two “prominent” vehicle manufacturers – he wouldn’t say which – to join the effort toward developing connected vehicles. Lawyers for the city and the manufacturers are also hashing out details concerning liability if one of the test vehicles were to crash.
The city is also working to identify corridors on which to test connected and autonomous vehicles, he said, adding that some RTS vendors have developed mini-van-sized autonomous vehicles and that the city would look into acquiring some for testing. He said the 34th street corridor and other areas around campus would be good places to start. If all goes well, the testing could expand to downtown Gainesville and eventually the entire city.
“But once again, we think that UF is gonna be the ideal situation before putting them out on the state road where they have to deal with a lot more vehicular traffic and people cutting each other off,” he said. “That’s one of the things that we’re really interested with this test bed project, seeing how the public interacts with these vehicles.”
Down the line, Elefteriadou said, developing autonomous vehicles would come into play. The technology needed for self-driving vehicles became more viable about four years ago, when Elefteriadou joined the UF faculty as a professor of civil engineering, she said.
UF has already developed its own autonomous Toyota Highlander, nicknamed the NaviGator, and Elefteriadou said she would work with UF professor Carl Crane, III, who helped develop the NaviGator, on further testing to one day roll out a fleet of self-driving vehicles on campus.
She said she is encouraged that the amount of traffic fatalities in Florida every year – she estimated it to be about 40,000 – would decrease with the use of autonomous vehicles, and that individuals who would normally be home-bound may find a way to get around without driving.
“It’s very exciting because this type of technology can be transformable,” she said. “Imagine if you’re – for the blind or handicap – if you’re able to have mobility without having to drive.”
On Monday, UF announced it would be awarding $312,760 to seven research endeavors focused on the university and Gainesville, including Elefteriadou’s proposal to study “public acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology.”
In February, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe and UF President Kent Fuchs signed a memorandum of understanding signifying the creation of a formal relationship between both parties in the pursuit of mutual preeminence, WUFT reported.
Skinner touched upon this agreement while speaking about this new partnership to research transportation improvements.
“That’s very important as the University of Florida and the City of Gainesville are putting together these strategic plans to continue to grow and improve our community as a whole, and not as two separate entities as we have in the past,” he said.