“It’s the Future”: Driverless Vehicle Facility Allows for “Real World” Tests

By Julie Gargotta
PUBLISHED 10:07 AM EDT May. 27, 2019 UPDATED 5:15 PM ET May. 27, 2019

AUBURNDALE, Fla. — In the middle of Polk County, there’s a road for testing technology so new that it’s still being created.

  • Suntrax a public-private partnership
  • Just completed a track for testing connected cars
  • Goal is to build a simulated city

Suntrax put the finishing touches on a testing facility for automated vehicles. The track is located in a secure facility off I-4 in Auburndale.

“In less than two years, we built everything,” said Paul Satchfield. “When you’re used to seeing it was a pasture and now it’s a full-fledged test facility, it was a great feeling. It’s the culmination of the vision.”

The SunTrax program manager has been with the project since day one. He said that the idea morphed from a way to test tolls technology at highway speeds to a bona fide testing ground — five lanes free from traffic — for connected cars.

“If something goes wrong, they can run it off into the field. They pick the car up, put it back together and try it again,” he said. “It’s going to increase mobility for everybody. If driving is a chore or you can’t do it, you’ll be able to hit a button on a phone.”

NEW TECHNOLOGY REQUIRES NEW RESEARCH

For Satchfield and others, the idea of autonomous vehicles ruling the roadway is promising. 

The capacity of a roadway might triple, he said, if all vehicles are connected. Cars will adjust to objects in roadway, without tapping their brakes; they can drive closer together.

And while most accidents are the fault of the human operator, fully-connected vehicles would reduce accidents by about 90 percent, Satchfield said.

Now Suntrax is relying on partners, like nearby Florida Polytechnic University, to dive into the research side of what it will take to get such vehicles geared up.

Grad student Christopher Medrano-Berumen​ is working to solve the problem. His thesis centers around automated cars and the process of licensing or regulating them.

Each week, the 21-year-old spends 20-30 hours completely absorbed in research, fueled he said by “lots of Red Bull.”

“Similar to a driving test you’d take to get your license, we wanted to do the same thing for an autonomous vehicle,” he explained. “It’ll hopefully alleviate a lot of the problems we see in urban transport.”

Medrano-Berumen​ works on his thesis under the guiding eye of Florida Polytechnic professor Dr. Mustafa Ilhan Akbas, who teaches about computer networks, autonomous vehicles, software engineering and network security​.

“It’s the future,” Akbas said. “You’re trying to solve a problem which is very difficult. That’s always exciting for me.”

Akbas explained that the first step is crafting simulations of the connected driving. Then, researchers will “hook up the brain” of autonomous cars into computers, before later connecting the real engine as well. The final step is to test out the connected cars on roadways using various scenarios.

“There are 300 million vehicles in the United States. Think about all the scenarios they can come across,” he mused. “We are going to bring the interesting scenarios to Suntrax or real life and test them there.”

But, Akbas said that collaboration with other universities and government partners is critical to bringing such technology to life.

“Connected vehicles will be an invaluable part of smart cities. So, the problem, the challenge is so big. No one can solve it individually,” said the professor.

WORKING TOGETHER

In 2016, the Obama administration issued a RFP, or request for proposals, for any facilities that wanted to become U.S. Department of Transportation designated testing grounds for autonomous vehicles. 

Out of the more than 60 applicants, 10 spots in the U.S. were chosen a year later — one of which was Central Florida.

And on the heels of the 2016 designation, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partners (CFAVP) was formed between various universities and government entities: the Florida Turnpike; FDOT; LYNX; city of Orlando; Central Florida Expressway Authority; NASA’s Kennedy Space Center; and universities of FAMU, Florida Polytechnic and UCF.

Though the designation has since been disavowed by the Trump administration, the CFAVP continues to meet on a monthly basis and court grants to develop new technology.

“The proof of this is that subsets of the CFAVP, and other proving grounds, have been able to leverage the potential of the proving ground designations, and the strengths of the individual partners, to obtain large federal grants,” said the city of Orlando’s Charles Ramdatt.

Utilizing land owned by the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Turnpike paid $42 million to construct a 2.25-mile oval track off Braddock Road in Auburndale. The track, with four toll gantries, took two years to complete and was finished last month.

In another two years, Satchfield said that the 200-acre infield will be transformed into a simulated city, with moveable shipping container buildings, a downtown environment and lots of asphalt. 

“You could have six-story buildings there with glass fronts, the next day a one-story building with wood fronts,” he said.

They’ll build hills to test out sensors’ limits, as well as breaking and vibration areas. Plus, various scenarios which could prove tricky for driverless cars, like airport pick-up or drop-off areas.

“That’s one of the big issues right now, where you have a wash of traffic,” said Satchfield, continuing, “Cars speeding up, slowing down. Pedestrians. You’re not going to shut down the airport to do this testing.”

Florida lawmakers just adopted HB 311, propelling automated vehicle technology and supporting research. The bill now awaits the Governor’s pen.

But for now, the infield remains grassy and vehicles have yet to hit the roadway as technology is still being harnessed. Researchers, like Akbas and Medrano-Berumen, pore over code, computer programs and simulator testing.

“I think it is going to bring up talent from all around the U.S., the world to Florida,” said Akbas. “We are getting there with our research and it’s building up.”

“There’s lots to figure out. It’s kind of a race to see who can get there first,” added the student. “It’s very gratifying, very fulfilling…especially something that can be so game changing as self-driving vehicles.”

Gainesville chooses Siemens Mobility for new Connected Vehicle Deployment

Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems has announced that it will provide Connected Vehicle (CV) solutions in the form of Roadside Units (RSU), On-Board Units (OBU), CV applications and RSU central management software.
Siemens Mobility, Intelligent Traffic Systems (ITS), MAY, 2019

Siemens Intelligent Traffic Systems has  announced that it will provide Connected Vehicle (CV) solutions in the form of Roadside Units (RSU), On-Board Units (OBU), CV applications and RSU central management software for Gainesville’s Trapezium Signal Phase and Timing (SPaT) project, which will be one of the largest state-funded SPaT CV deployments in the U.S.

The project will take place along the 4-road area surrounding the University of Florida, descriptively called “the Trapezium” – covering 27 intersections.  The university environment surrounded by this area provides a rich spectrum of automobile, transit, bicycle, and pedestrian activity and is an ideal location to further examine and quantify the significant benefits of CV technologies. 

“Siemens Mobility is excited to be leading the momentum for CV deployment in cities around the country,” said Marcus Welz, president of Siemens Mobility’s Intelligent Traffic Systems business in North America. “The inevitable safety and mobility benefits provided by utilizing CV technology is becoming more mainstream, thanks to the efforts of agencies like FDOT, who have really stepped up to push Florida into the spotlight of this disruptive new force.” 

“The Florida Department of Transportation is committed to incorporating the latest technology and transportation solutions to strengthen safety on our roadways,” said Raj Ponnaluri, FDOT Connected Vehicles, and Arterial Management Engineer. “We’re proud to develop this exciting CV technology project that has the potential to make a major impact on driving behavior in the Gainesville area.”

The project is expected to be completed by 2021, and is planning to include the following CV capabilities: 

  • SPaT MAP Display Signal Timing, signaling remaining time to a Green signal
  • Red Light Violation Warning
  • Wrong Way Entry (WWE)
  • Exit Ramp Deceleration Warning (ERDW)
  • Curve Speed Warning (CSW)
  • Emergency Electronic Brake Lights
  • Forward Collision Warning
  • Intersection Movement Assist
  • Work Zone Warning
  • Do Not Pass Warning
  • Speed Limit Warning

These are applications that have already been successfully tested in other cities.  This technology has been previously installed in the state of Florida and has been proven to be interoperable and compatible with third party devices. 

Siemens’ history with DSRC communications and CV applications in the U.S. extends back to 2007 with its involvement with the USDOT Connected Vehicle Test Bed in Oakland County, MI. This was a testing environment intended to advance the state of ITS practice by providing a cutting-edge model operating environment for CV and DSRC. Siemens was one of the first controller manufacturers to output SPaT data at the testbed.

Siemens Mobility has been supplying traffic-related products and services to FDOT, as well as local municipalities in Florida for over 40 years.  Most recently, Siemens Mobility has been the primary CV technology partner in the high-profile Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) USDOT Connected Vehicle Pilot Project, supplying over 40 RSUs and driving the development of 13 V2I and V2V applications.

Babcock Ranch In Florida Is To Sustainable Living What Tesla Is To Sustainable Transportation

July 15th, 2018 by

Tucked into a corner of Southwest Florida about a half-hour from Fort Myers, Babcock Ranch is what developer Syd Kitson calls the most sustainable new community in America. It started when Kitson, a former NFL player, purchased the 91,000 acre ranch in 2006. He immediately struck a deal to sell 73,000 acres of the property to the state of Florida for a wildlife preserve. He then donated 440 acres to Florida Power & Light with the stipulation that it construct a solar power plant on the land. Today, that parcel is covered by 350,000 solar panels that feed electricity into the electrical grid.

Then Kitson went to work with local partners to design and build a new community on the remaining 17,000 acres. “We want to be the most sustainable new town in the United States,” Kitson tells CBS News. “We had the advantage of a green field, a blank sheet of paper. When you have a blank sheet of paper like this, you really can do it right from the beginning.”

The town gets most of its electricity from the nearby solar power plant during the day. Although the community has 10 small battery stations, Kitson says large-scale battery storage is still too expensive (Elon Musk would disagree), so at night or on cloudy days, the community draws power from the utility grid. “The people here pay the exact same amount that everybody else pays in the Florida Power and Light network,” he says. “Clearly, if you have a number of cloudy days in a row, it will impact the efficiency and the available electricity that comes from the solar field, but this is Florida, and if you don’t like the weather, just wait 10 minutes.” Last year, when Hurricane Irma swept across that part of the state, not one solar panel was damaged.

The first residents began moving in at the beginning of this year. 500 homes are expected to be completed by December. 19,500 dwelling units are planned over the next two decades. All of the structures in Babcock Ranch will feature the latest energy efficiency technology and offer 1 gigabit internet access. Alexa will handle all smart home functions. Outside, there are 50 miles of nature trails through the wildlife preserve next door. A farm-to-table organic gardening project is underway and a K-8 charter school is planned. Residents will be encouraged to leave their cars at home as they walk, bike, or take advantage of the electric autonomous shuttle bus fleet that will service the community.

“This community is a unique opportunity to really implement sustainable technology in a practical way,” Haris Alibašić, a professor at the University of West Florida, tells Good.com. “Cities around the world have started adopting 100% renewable energy targets, but it’s both intriguing and encouraging to see this happening from a developer.” He adds he would like to see more affordable housing included in the plans for the community. A three bedroom home in Babcock Ranch sells for $195,000 and a four bedroom town house lists for $795,000. “I think the ultimate key to long term sustainability is attracting people from diverse incomes and backgrounds,” he says.

Last January, Richard and Robin Kinley became the first family to move to Babcock Ranch. They chose a house near a lake, which has now been named Lake Kinley in their honor. “The air is nice and clean here and I think these types of communities are the future,” Robin says. “I felt very much like when I bought a Tesla back in 2013 and I said, this is definitely is going to make it,” Richard adds. “I felt the same way about Babcock Ranch.”

Their first neighbors were Donna and James Aveck, who moved in a few weeks later. “We love the innovation here,” Donna says. “We think it’s a very small planet and we want to do our part to conserve it.” Babcock Ranch has thought of every detail when it comes to sustainability. Jim says, “When I go to the gym, which is huge, and I get on the treadmill, the energy I generate by running actually feeds back into the electric grid.”

Communities that have already transitioned to 100% renewable energy include Aspen, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Greensburg, Kansas; Rockport, Missouri; and Kodiak Island, Alaska, according to the Sierra Club. But Babcock Ranch has designed sustainability into the entire fabric of the community from the beginning. Just as Tesla has driven change in the transportation industry, Babcock Ranch will encourage other cities and towns to make sustainability part of their community DNA.

Senate Kicks Off Series of Infrastructure Hearings With Focus on Broadband

Sen. Wicker says better data about high-speed availability is crucial

Posted 3/13/2018 3:10 PM Eastern

By: John Eggerton

The Senate Commerce Committee kicked off a series of infrastructure hearings Tuesday with one focused on broadband, including a big focus on collecting accurate date about where broadband is, and more importantly, isn’t.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) presided, saying he was greatly encouraged by the President’s support for programs to increase broadband infrastructure in rural areas. While the President said getting broadband to farmers was a priority, he didn’t actually earmark any funds for broadband in his infrastructure plan, though he did say that $50 million would be going to rural infrastructure, with states free to use all or part of that for broadband.

Congress is currently weighing the best way to deploy that service. Democrats like to factor cost and underserved communities in the equation, while Republicans — and ISPs — want the money targeted to the unserved, rather than overbuilding existing private investment with public money.

Wicker said the process of identifying those unserved areas starts with collecting accurate date, something the FCC has been charged with since the Obama-era stimulus funding for a National Telecommunications & Information Administration broadband mapping program ran out in 2015, though some in Congress are trying to return that function to the NTIA with new money.

The FCC recently released a new map to help identify where broadband subsidies related to the Phase II Mobility fund should be going, but critics, including Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, have pointed to some errors.

Wicker said it was critical to have good information so that communities that “truly lacked service” could be identified.

“Inaccurate information would only exacerbate the digital divide, he said, adding, “We don’t have accurate data yet.”

Related: White House Defends Lack of Direct Rural Broadband Investment (Or Any Direct Broadband Investment for That Matter)

Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) pointed out that he and his colleagues had wanted direct investments in broadband to be part of any infrastructure plan and called the Trump proposal — $200 billion in federal funds for all infrastructure, with $50 billion for rural, but no direct earmarks for broadband and the hope that the private sector leverages that $200 billion into a $1.5 trillion rebuild/buildout — “simply inadequate on broadband expansion.”

He signaled it was up to the Senate Commerce Committee to step up and fill that void with “critical” direct investment in broadband, something Democrats have done in their own infrastructure proposal to the tune of $40 billion.

Nelson used the hearing to put in a plug for a “reasoned discussion” about sensitive regulatory issues related to the build-out of small-cell 5G wireless broadband, including historic preservation and environmental concerns. The FCC next week is planning to vote on an order that would exempt some small-cell deployments from historic preservation and environmental reviews, something CTIA: The Wireless Association says could save $1.6 billion over the next eight years.

Nelson noted that the FCC seemed eager to, in his words, “wipe away key laws and regulations meant to protect our fellow citizens and important federal, state, local and tribal interests.”

Sen Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), ranking member of the subcommittee, warned that Democrats were unlikely to support shifting the broadband infrastructure responsibility to states and localities, or undermining labor or environmental protections.

Gary Resnick, mayor of Wilton Manors, Fla., who testified at the hearing, said that while he agreed with removing impediments to deployment of broadband, like encouraging “dig once” policies for combining road revamps with laying broadband conduit, he said that preempting state and local reviews for small cell deployment was bad policy and that such deployments would not close the digital divide. “Small cell technology is not called small because the technology is small,” he said, “but because the signal covers a small area.”

Steve Berry, CEO, Competitive Carriers Association, was one of those not high on the FCC’s new broadband map. He said the FCC should have measured signal strength, rather than the map the FCC produced that identified the areas it thought were eligible for the USF Phase II mobility fund.

“I am very concerned that the map is so disfigured in terms of its reality on the ground that it is almost impossible to successfully challenge [it],” Berry said.

Bob DeBroux of TDS Telecom said he thought the FCC had made a good start using the data it had, and would be building the map as time goes on. He conceded that there were definitely flaws in the map, but that they could be refined and that the underlying data “is there.”