Charles Ramdatt, Transportation Engineering Division Manager for the city of Orlando, sees a precedent in recent history for Florida's role as a laboratory for research in vehicle technology. In the early 90s, as Ramdatt explained in a recent phone call, Florida was one of the first places to trial computerized navigation systems in commercial vehicles, the majority of which were installed in rental cars to test their effectiveness in guiding tourists around the state's highway network.
"We had a problem in the 90s, and that was tourists were getting lost in Florida and sometimes bad things would happen to them," he told Motherboard. "Well, we used that challenge to develop in-vehicle navigation systems which are now standard across the world."
Today, a coalition of transport providers, universities, municipal governments and transit authorities have come together under the banner of the Central Florida Automated Vehicles Partnership, which Ramdatt helps to coordinate, and are hoping to repeat the successes of the 90s with a series of initiatives to help build public confidence in autonomous vehicle technology. This kind of exposure is important for future adoption given that 75 percent of Americans report that they would be afraid to travel in an autonomous vehicle, perhaps fueled by high-profile incidents like the May 2016 fatal Tesla crash and accidents that have affected Uber's autonomous testing in Arizona.
In the intervening decades Florida has continued to be a popular tourist destination—the state welcomed roughly 113 million tourists in 2016, according to official figures—and the Partnership is hoping that scientifically themed attractions such as NASA tours or Disney's Epcot will be fertile ground to gauge visitors' reactions to new transportation technologies. Rather than just strapping them in and pressing "go," the initiative will involve a range of different opportunities for habituation and experimentation: while certain test areas will offer the chance to ride in self-driving cars, the more widely deployed rental vehicles will be fitted with combinations of sensors, connected devices and other navigation or driving aids, trialing different forms of automation that will stop short of a fully autonomous mode.
"We're looking to be an ecosystem that will facilitate the progression from now until we get to fully autonomous vehicles [everywhere]," Ramdatt said.
As yet there is no fixed date for the rollout of the testing, with the exact schedule contingent on research conducted at the University of Central Florida and practical testing at the SunTrax facility, construction of which is still underway. But it was the availability of such facilities, along with the plan to make use of the booming tourist industry as a sourcing ground for de facto test subjects, which helped the city of Orlando win a designation as one of 10 proving grounds for autonomous vehicle technologies by the U.S. Department of Transportation, a title signifying that research conducted in these areas will be closely supervised and used to inform the development of government policy around many aspects of autonomous vehicle use.
The project also has the full support of Orlando's mayor, Buddy Dyer, who cited the research and development pedigree of the surrounding area in a call with Motherboard.
"We have a long history of innovative technology here," said Dyer.
"NASA is located in Central Florida, our theme parks are at the cutting edge in terms of the rides and experience they provide, [and] we have the largest modelling simulation and training cluster located here associated with the University of Central Florida, so it's a natural pull of things to base this project here," he added.
The mayor also framed the experiment with vehicle technology in the context of a broader initiative to develop Orlando as a leader in smart city infrastructure overall, which was recently recognized by the Smart Cities Council.
"We're very excited to be included in this initiative, and that when people think of smart cities and technology Orlando is a part of that group," he added.