Do you recall watching the Jetsons TV show as a child and wanting to own a self-driving vehicle like theirs? With the help of the new Suntrax testing facility that is under construction, technology is that wish may become a reality in the near future. Autonomous technology that can function without the interference of human input or help.
The Florida Department of Transportation has partnered with Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland to construct the future testing site for autonomous technology and other transportation testing that will allow present and future drivers ride to on the highways a lot safer. Suntrax will have a 600-acre exterior perimeter that will be equipped with a 2 ½ mile oval track dedicated to toll testing. The remaining 200 acres in the interior is for Dr. Dean Bushey and his students at Florida Polytechnic University to have space to build, test and perfect their autonomous vehicle technology. “[Once completed], the track will be the size of the Daytona 500,” said Bushey. In preparation for this new venture, Bushey and Florida Poly started offering a course in spring of this year called “Autonomous Systems and Self-Driving Vehicles.”
This course, originally a research project, allows the students to upgrade a basic RC car into a self-driving vehicle. At the end of the semester, the car must be able to stop at red lights and avoid obstacles independently. Bushey, a retired Air Force colonel, had previous experience in designing self- driving airplanes for military purposes. He was given the opportunity to work with and teach a summer course for autonomous vehicles alongside the professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).
“We were able to export [M.I.T.’s] course via me,” said Bushey. The professors at M.I.T. equipped Bushey with course work, labs and background material they had done for the course and Bushey put his own spin on it.
Building an autonomous vehicle allows the students in Bushey’s course to have a cross-discipline project based education. In other words, they take a real world problem and bring it to the forefront with challenges and tips given to them by Bushey. It takes electrical engineering, computer engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering to make an autonomous vehicle function. The cars these students build require a series of sensors, cameras, radars, microwaves and midars (tool to measure distance) that collect data. The car has to have recognition data, mapping data as well as simultaneous location, edge detection and path planning programmed into it.
The Suntrax research facility is a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) funded project that will help Florida’s toll testing technology. Suntrax is being developed because the FDOT didn’t have a place to test overhead sensors, side cameras, high-speed testing, adverse weather conditions and other tests necessary for success.
Future undergraduate students enrolled in this class and graduate students will be testing on-site at the Suntrax testing facility, allowing them to have the tools to set them up for a great future. “Suntrax will give Florida Poly more leverage than any other university,” said Saivamsi Hanumanthu, a junior majoring in computer science and cyber security at Florida Poly. There are many phases coming to the Suntrax development. The first phase is the ground breaking and building of the exterior, which started in June and will take about 600 days to complete.
The construction of phase two, the interior, is unknown because of the massive amount of planning out what will go into it. So far, the design team has come up with conditions that the autonomous vehicles can be tested in, such as “an urban canyon, which [has] a city landscape and a suburb, high-speed interchanges [and]off-road all-weather, off weather,” said Bushey. The ultimate goal of Suntrax is to provide everything a company needs to test their vehicles. Suntrax will not only be a state-wide testing facility but an international testing facility as well. It will offer a business friendly environment for companies to come to Florida and spend money to test their autonomous vehicles. Bushey and his students have many other opportunities outside of the course to work on autonomous vehicle technology. They are currently working with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority to turn an old monorail, which takes you to several places throughout the city, into an autonomous system.
Another project involves making the Miami Police Department squad cars autonomous to provide more security for the officers. “It’s kind of like Knight Rider [where there’s] a talking car,” said Bushey. Downtown Tampa partnered with Bushey and his students to work on “The Last Mile” project, which is a 1-2 mile intercity transportation system.
Students at Florida Poly have volunteered to help Bushey convert a golf cart into an autonomous system. “We are still getting all the parts together,” said Hanumanthu. They are trying to have it completed by the end of this year. There are five factors to think about when it comes to seeing the benefits of autonomous technology.
Safety is the first. Last year over 50,000 deaths were due to human error but more specifically distracted driving. With autonomous technology, vehicles will be much safer. Another factor is capacity. “Capacity on I-4 is constructed by how many cars you can get on it,” said Bushey, “autonomous vehicles or mostly autonomous vehicles can fit much closer together.” Real estate, mobility and ridesharing also factor in.
With autonomous vehicles, there is no need for parking garages or parking lots because the car is able to drop off and pick up the passenger as needed. Autonomous vehicles will be able to all people without mobility to regain independence as well as allowing its passenger to get work done while on the way to work. Having an autonomous vehicle will be like using Uber without the driver. “You pull up your app on your phone and push the button when you need a car and it picks you up and takes you where you want to go,” said Bushey.
Every new technology also experiences its glitches. There are different levels of autonomy, Zero being nothing is autonomous in a car to a level three where the car can start to make decisions on behalf of the driver. “The question is, how do you mitigate the chances of that happening and what do you do when something happens?” said Bushey, “you have to show you’re level three capable, if the technology fails then you know to pull off to the side of the road safely.” There are always imperfections that the designer has to deal with while programming the safety security components. From the classroom to the testing track, building the Suntrax facility will allow Florida Polytechnic University to be the most innovative university in Florida. Having a vehicle similar to the ones like the Jetsons are anticipated to be on the roads in 2021 by the students at the university.