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A "Game-Changer:" Florida Poly's New Course On Self-Driving Cars

Florida has become a hotbed for driverless car technology. The self-driving vehicle is moving from the Jetsons to a road near you, and things are moving fast.

At Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, students are just starting a brand new class that teaches the basics of building an autonomous vehicle.

Dr. Dean Bushey is the professor piloting the new “Autonomous Systems and Self-Driving Vehicles”  class at Florida Polytechnic. When his cell phone rings during an interview, the theme from "I Dream of Jeannie" hints at Bushey's recent Air Force career.

The retired Colonel has a doctorate in computer science and a background in drones. He said now is the perfect time for a course like this.

"If I wanted to," Bushey said,  "every weekend I could go to an autonomous vehicles conference somewhere in the U.S. It's such a hot topic right now."

Bushey and his students share a lab with the cyber security department. The sunny room looks out over the water that encircles Florida Poly's other-worldly Innovation, Science and Technology building.

Twenty-year-old sophomore Max Cowan is one of the 24 students taking the semester long course. He's excited about the future of self-driving cars.

"I think around 2035 when it is widely adopted, we're going to look back on this era of driving our own cars as silly," Cowan said. "We could avoid so much death and so much pain with everyone using self-driving cars.  Eliminating human error is a big deal for any industry, and automating driving would be a huge deal. "

The students will take baby steps toward that goal of autonomy. They'll engineer their yard-long race cars to drive in a straight line, make turns and avoid obstacles - with no outside guidance.

A small team of students will work on each car. For the final exam, Bushey will set up a mini Grand Prix course down the hallway, and the cars will race each other, autonomously.

The autonomous vehicle class is launching just as the university prepares to break ground on SunTrax. Florida Poly is partnering with the Florida Department of Transportation on this new facility, which will test tolling and self-driving technology.

"I've got big visions," Bushey said. "We could potentially team up with an automobile manufacturer downtown and we could actually bring a car out here, and the kids could actually put together an autonomous vehicle, not just a one tenth scale model. They could figure out all the components that go into building car. But that's dreaming big, obviously."

Because it's an emerging technology, there's no well-established model on which to base the course.  Florida Poly is partnering with MIT in Boston to co-teach the class.

"The genesis of this course is MIT," Bushey said. "I went up and visited MIT. They've taught for two semesters now and they also have a summer course. There's hardly any  university with a degree or a program in autonomous vehicles. It's brand new."

It may be new, but the enthusiasm for autonomous vehicles among its proponents knows no bounds. Bushey admits that there will be societal shifts, unintended consequences, and threats to privacy. But, he said, the benefits far outweigh the risks.


"Mark Cuban talks about are you doing something that's a big change, a big deal. This is a big deal, as far as safety, accidents, traffic, transportation. This is a game changer."


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Florida Polytechnic Innovation, Science and Technology Building
Florida Polytechnic Innovation, Science and Technology Building

Dr. Dean Bushey
Robin Sussingham/WUSF News /
Dr. Dean Bushey

Robin is Senior Editor at WUSF, spearheading the station's podcasting initiatives and helping to guide the vision for special reporting projects and creative storytelling. She hosts the weekly current affairs program, Florida Matters, on WUSF and also created The Zest, the station's podcast that's all about food, which she continues to host and serve as senior producer.
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