The Autonomous Vehicle Industry In The Sunshine Economy
Being in an autonomous vehicle can be a lot of work.
It takes two people — one in the driver’s seat, a second in the passenger seat — each describing what they are seeing and what the car will be doing, and confirming it.
Testing what may be the future of personal transportation, Ford Fusions have been rolling around the streets in and around downtown Miami with cameras and LIDAR sensors mounted outside and trunks full of computing gear so they can operate without drivers. Argo AI and Ford came to Miami almost two years ago to test their driverless technology and are among the companies pushing autonomous vehicle development in Florida.
"Out of the cities where we are testing, (Miami) is among my favorites," Argo AI CEO Bryan Salesky said. In addition to Miami, Agro has its driveless technology on Ford test cars in Washington, DC, Detroit, Palo Alto, Calif., Austin, and its hometown of Pittsburgh.
Florida was one of the first states to welcome the industry to test the technology on its streets. One company is testing autonomous taxis in The Villages. Another has put a driverless semi-truck on the Turnpike.
"The system needs to detect all of the relevant objects around it, whether it be vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and so on," Salesky said. "But it's not enough to just detect that there that they're around the car. You also have to predict what are they likely about to do. What we've been able to do is really refine these algorithms to predict that."
Turning on the driverless technology and allowing a computer to take over all functions is as easy as pushing the cruise control button on the steering wheel. There is a big red button just below the radio that disconnects everything in an emergency. When driving in autonomous mode, the car accelerates and brakes when its supposed to, even if the ride is a little jerky. Turns are pitch perfect — no under- or over-steering. And the technology is a cautious driver. The car slows and stops on yellow lights. It doesn't pull into an intersection to turn left while waiting for cross traffic. It comes to a full stop behind a stop sign.
These cars can navigate the streets without a driver, but there is someone always in the driver’s seat watching the road. There’s a second person in the passenger seat monitoring all the technology. These cars are not considered fully autonomous by the industry.
The development of this technology won’t be a big driver of employment in Florida. The technology is imported from California and Pennsylvania for testing. These companies have a few dozen workers here. Instead, they’re focused on the market Florida represents; good driving conditions, and serving a growing and aging population.
Seeing the vehicles on the streets will help build demand, says Alejandro Zamarano, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "It's going to determine the demand for the services that you can access through them in the future."
Florida first invited autonomous vehicle testing to the state in 2012. Twenty-eight states now have policies regulating AV testing. In 2019, the Legislature OK'd updated rules that include allowing driveless technology to be tested on public roads with no human back-up driver behind the wheel.
Just days after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the legislation, an 18-wheeler drove a 9.4 mile stretch of the Turnpike south of Orlando with no one on board. It was a Volvo big rig pulling a trailer sporting a Starsky Robotics logo on it — the company behind the technology guiding the machine down the highway.
"From my perspective, there's only five to seven other states that are quite so tech forward as as Florida is," Starsky Robotics CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher said.
On Father's Day 2019, Seltz-Axmacher and a Starsky Robotics team woke up early and put a semi-truck on the Turkpike with no driver. A remote control driver helped get the truck on and off the highway, but for just over nine miles, it drove at 55 miles-an-hour, with Sunday morning traffic moving around it, down the road. It marked the first true driverless truck trip on a Florida highway, sharing the road with the public.
"I think the thing that is the most exciting thing about autonomoy is how quickly it can become boring," Seltz-Axmacher said.
While Florida has given the green light for the autonomous vehicle industry to test its technology, a lot is at stake for the state’s workforce. Florida ranks third among states in the number of truck drivers calling it home. In 2018, there were more than 88,000 Floridians making a living driving semi-trucks, earning an average of $42,000 a year — a little less than the statewide average.
Almost 25,000 tractor-trailer drivers live in South Florida, making an average of $41,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If the future of truck driving isn’t in the cab behind the wheel, looking at the world through a windshield, what happens to those livelihoods?
"We want to turn (truck driving) into a a comfortable shift office job where you go into an office, you work eight hours, you drive a number of trucks, and you leave the office after your shift is done and spend that time with your family," Seltz-Axmacher said.