Florida is leading the way to a driverless future

By Joe Rinzel, special to the Tampa Bay Times
Published: November 16, 2017

There is a new city being developed in southeast Florida near Babcock Ranch where some 50,000 residents will have access to one of the first driverless taxi networks in the country. This is yet another example of how Florida is now an important hub for autonomous vehicle technology, proving to states around the country that forward-thinking policies can trigger unprecedented innovation and investment.

From its inception, Babcock Ranch’s new development was designed to be a haven for those who want to say goodbye to traditional forms of transportation. In addition to driverless taxis, the town will also have autonomous pods — designated for one or two passengers — as well as autonomous buses.

More communities like this are likely to crop up around the state in the coming years, as Florida emerges as a leader in the race toward a driverless future. The state first embraced the technology in 2011 when it began to experiment with a connected vehicle network along a stretch of Interstate 4, and lawmakers passed a bill last year to clear the way for more expanded testing. They have sent a clear message to the driverless industry that Florida is not only open for business, but that it wants to play a significant role in shaping the future of 21st century mobility and transportation.

This leadership has prompted collaboration from agencies and institutions across the state. The city of Orlando, Florida Polytechnic University and the Florida Turnpike Enterprise, among others, have come together to establish the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership, which will break ground on a host of new testing and simulation facilities that researchers will use to figure out how autonomous technology can be most safely deployed.

Federal policymakers are taking note of Florida’s bold initiatives. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that Central Florida will be a pilot site for testing driverless technology. As a part of the plan, the Kennedy Space Center will serve as a testing facility where researchers can determine how these vehicles can operate most safely in extreme weather and other unusual roadway conditions. There will also be a new 400-acre facility in Polk County called SunTrax, where researchers will explore how autonomous vehicles should interact with pedestrians and bicycles.

Lawmakers beyond Florida’s borders are drawing up their own plans to ensure residents and businesses in their states will benefit from driverless technology. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey signed an executive order to ensure companies designing and manufacturing autonomous hardware and software are not burdened by overly restrictive regulations. In Pennsylvania, officials in Pittsburgh are teaming up with Uber to develop a citywide system for driverless cabs. And in Michigan, legislators, business leaders and academic researchers have worked together on a program to create safe connected-car technologies that can make roads less congested.

Initiatives such as these provide a road map for how state and local policymakers across the country can embrace forward-thinking policies that will provide new opportunities to residents and businesses and attract investment that can help boost local economies. Autonomous technology will soon transform day-to-day travel for Americans and open up a world of new possibilities for businesses to transform their operations and better serve customers. Policymakers in Florida are showing other states how smart rules and policies will soon make this exciting vision for the future a reality.

Joe Rinzel is a spokesman for Americans for a Modern Economy, a consumer advocacy group focused on modernizing antiquated regulations and laws governing the U.S. economy.