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(Tallahassee.com) - The march of automotive technology toward smarter vehicles has transportation researchers and planners preparing for what looks like the inevitable — cars that can communicate with each other, adjust to their surroundings and drive themselves to the chosen destination.

Successful tests of these autonomous vehicles, combined with further use of intelligent transportation systems in general on the state's highways, is the route to safer travel and more efficiency on the roads, experts say, especially as Florida prepares to claim the No. 3 spot on the list of most populous states.

In January the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority announced that the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway had met the criteria to become an automated vehicle test site, having gained the approval of RITA, the Research and Innovative Technology Administration of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In February, the department announced it would move forward with technology that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other in order to prevent collisions. Transportation officials estimate that vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication could prevent up to 80 percent of accidents that don't involve drunk drivers or mechanical failure.

Anticipating more advances in vehicles that today can park themselves, alert drowsy drivers and apply brakes in response to a hazard, the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida established its Automated Vehicle Institute. One of its first activities last November was hosting a summit to get all the players together and assess the impacts to transportation in Florida.

"The stuff is here, the parking assist, the adaptable cruise control. That is becoming more and more mainstream and more prevalent," said Stephen L. Reich, the institute's director and head of CUTR's transportation program evaluation and economic analysis.

Ananth Prasad, secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation, likened the progress to the rapid development of smartphones in just a few years, and he expects more computing and mobile communications capabilities will be incorporated into vehicles.

"The cars are going to go through the technology evolution that the phones went through," Prasad said.

Those systems will help bring transportation systems closer to their efficiency objectives. For example, vehicles that can maintain speeds and following distances and detect hazards sooner would result in better use of roads.

"I think that is what you are going to see in the next five to 10 years. We will be able to squeeze more cars into the existing infrastructure," Prasad said. He and his counterparts in other states have established working groups and meet with the idea of planning for what's ahead. It's a process in which Florida wants to play a leading role.

"We want to be the thought leader and the influencer, and the best way to influence policy is at the front end rather than the back end," Prasad added.

The outlook

The consulting and research group IHS Automotive forecasts total worldwide sales of self-driving cars will grow from nearly 230,000 in 2025 to 11.8 million in 2035. Of that total, IHS estimates that 7 million of those vehicles will have both driver control and autonomous control, and 4.8 million will be autonomous control only. In all, there should be nearly 54 million self-driving cars in use globally by 2035.

Given that scenario, "This is a field that a lot of people are interested in, as well," said Pei-Sung Lin, the ITS, traffic operations and safety program director at CUTR. State and local governments, transportation agencies and communities are exploring what that future will be like and taking steps to get ready for it.

A good portion of CUTR's work deals with urban transit systems, where there are implications for autonomous vehicles as well. Having the technology, however, is only part of the equation. There are other aspects that must be addressed, Lin says, including safety, liability questions, and policy development. "It's not just purely technology."

Because of the variety of vehicle and infrastructure safety systems now installed and planned in the future, the focus on consistent, widely applicable standards and protocols is critical, according to RITA.

The vehicles take two forms. Connected vehicles are capable of communicating with others — V2V — or with the infrastructure itself — V2I. They are able to receive advisories or driver warnings en route, and react if another car poses a hazard, such as a motorist approaching an intersection who isn't slowing for a red light.

Autonomous vehicles use a combination of cameras, radar, LIDAR remote sensing and GPS to pilot themselves, giving the driver the option of reading, answering email or doing other tasks. Florida is among the handful of states that allows the operation of autonomous vehicles in designated areas.

Besides the Selmon Expressway, Florida's other test site is in FDOT's District 5. It is for connected vehicles and runs along I-4 from John Young Parkway to SR 528, on International Drive from Sand Lake Road to the south side of SR 528, and along Universal Boulevard between Sand Lake Road and SR 528. Several types of thoroughfares are included – interstate, medium-speed arterial roads, and low-speed roads with heavy pedestrian activity, District 5 said.

ITS progress

The continued deployment of intelligent transportation system hardware on I-10 from Gadsden County to Pensacola — including cameras, vehicle detection devices, message signs and other devices — is on track to be finished by spring 2015, FDOT says.

The network will consist of 183 traffic cameras, 17 overhead message signs, 135 microwave vehicle detectors, 40 travel time sensors, three road and weather information sensors and eight highway advisory radio transmitters. The equipment is connected to the fiber optic backbone for the high-speed communication network, which extends along a 158-mile section of I-10 from State Road 87 in Santa Rosa County to U.S. 90 in Gadsden County. The network also extends 56 miles along U.S. 231 from the Alabama state line to Bay County.

In addition, a new regional transportation management center will be established at the FDOT District 3 headquarters in Chipley.

George Gilhooley, an engineer and east Florida office leader for consulting firm HNTB, says the effort to attain better, more efficient usage of highways is helping drive the adoption of technologies.

"The first reason certainly is safety," he said. Considering the volume of vehicles on the interstate system, the quicker that traffic managers can respond and get traffic moving again, the better. That's the benefit of having cameras and detection devices in place along the roads.

"Not only do you save a lot of people's time, you prevent other crashes from occurring," said Gilhooley, whose company is celebrating its 100th year of transportation design and engineering, 60 years of that span in Florida. "You may have a disabled vehicle there. That alone can interfere with traffic."

Motorists can anticipate traffic slowdowns during rush-hour periods morning and afternoon and make allowances for them, but it's the unexpected that can catch drivers by surprise. Consequently, the addition of mobile communication directly to the car is a logical next step.

"There are a lot of things happening on that side, but the key is being able to interconnect them, the integration of that as we move forward," Gilhooley said. It will involve linking the highway system's technology with that which the driver will have in the vehicle.

"That's what is so rewarding regarding working in transportation," Gilhooley said. "It's the ability to make a person's trip safer and more efficient, and that improves their lives."

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