ORLANDO — Fifty years after Florida rallied for a moonshot, the state's government and industry leaders have coalesced around another breakthrough technology that will be deployed closer to home.
Executives and elected officials have sought to make Florida a hotbed of activity in the development of self-driving technology, a location as synonymous with next-generation transportation as Silicon Valley or Detroit.
Those efforts, underway for years, reached a crescendo in recent months.
Last month Starsky Robotics, a Silicon Valley startup, used a 9.5-mile stretch of the Florida Turnpike to conduct the first test of a self-driving truck with no human aboard in everyday traffic. Also in June, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation that clarified definitions around automated-vehicle technology and ensured an industry-friendly foundation for testing and deployments.
Last week, Orlando hosted the sixth annual Automated Vehicles Symposium, a gathering that brings together top industry leaders, government officials and academic researchers. The conference traditionally has been one of the key venues for discussions of emerging autonomous technology and the implications of deployments. It has been in San Francisco four of the past five years.
Organizers say one reason for the switch was California regulations prohibited some of the driverless technology that companies wanted to demonstrate on public streets. Further, the arrival of the conference in Orlando symbolized Florida's growing importance in the self-driving realm.
"It's the third-largest state, it's a state with no snow, it's relatively flat, we have a strong public-university system, so Florida checks a lot of boxes," says Jeff Brandes, a state senator from the Tampa Bay area who co-sponsored House Bill 311, the legislation that cemented the state's friendly posture toward testing and sets the stage for insurance companies to be a third-party validator of self-driving competence. "Florida offers a diverse marketplace, and areas like Miami are really challenging. If you can test there, you develop some street cred."
That's where Ford Motor Co. intends to start a commercial delivery business underpinned by self-driving technology. Argo AI, the company developing the self-driving system for Ford, has been testing in Miami, and commercial deployment is tentatively set for 2021.
Elsewhere in Florida, self-driving startup Voyage is testing its autonomous shuttles in The Villages, a retirement community that provides both a contained environment for low-speed operations and a customer base that often has mobility needs. In Lake Nona, a planned community near southeast Orlando, operator Beep will soon start self-driving shuttle service, and CEO Joe Moye says as many as 20 vehicles will be operating over the next 12 to 18 months, and human safety drivers may be removed toward the end of that time frame.
SunTrax, a 475-acre connected- and autonomous-vehicle testbed between Orlando and Tampa, is to open this summer.
Florida's foothold in automated driving is at least partially the brainchild of Brandes, who found himself fascinated with self-driving cars after watching a TED Talk featuring computer scientist Sebastian Thrun in the early days of the Google self-driving car project. .
"Artificial intelligence is really the new electricity, and I've kind of gravitated toward that concept," Brandes says. "You couple that with what Uber has done in the mobile-app and ride-sharing space, and with electrification, and you see these trends converging. … It's exciting to identify that early and kind of angel-invest as a policymaker."
If Brandes sensed opportunity, an economic base that includes defense contractors provides a source of talent, as does the University of Central Florida, which boasts a Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab that conducts simulation research and training for the military, as well as the College of Optics and Photonics.
The College of Optics and Photonics has attracted companies such as Luminar, a lidar startup that has inked partnerships with the likes of Toyota and Volvo Group. Luminar has set up offices and its first manufacturing operations adjacent to the Central Florida campus in Orlando.
Luminar's presence in Orlando is helping business leaders elsewhere recognize that there's more to Orlando than Mickey Mouse and tourism, says Sheena Fowler, vice president of innovation with the Orlando Economic Partnership.
She says, "People wouldn't pay the rates they do for tourism here if there wasn't a whole lot of technology and innovation behind those experiences, and that's what we do."