Opinion

Opinion

Help is on the way! Cars without drivers coming to Florida

Posted January 14, 2018 2:08 p.m. EST

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Mark it on your calendar.

This is the time Florida has entered a brave new world.

We're getting a large-scale experiment in bringing driverless cars to a Florida retirement community.

Yes, cars that travel on roadways without human drivers.

I know. I know. It seems like we've had these cars forever in Florida.

You're driving on I-95, and you look at the car in the next lane, and it appears to be going down the road by itself.

But if you look again, and you notice a pair of hands reaching for the 10 and 2 o'clock position on the wheel, or maybe the top of a golf cap. And then you realize there is a driver there, just not one who rises above the dashboard.

This isn't about those kind of driverless cars. We've been experimenting with those kind of driverless cars for decades. And they are all over.

This is about the kind of driverless cars that are mechanically driven without human input and are far safer than the driverless cars we already have.

In the upcoming weeks, they'll be in The Villages, a sprawling age-restricted community that includes parts of Marion and Lake counties. The 123,000 residents there are going to be Florida's pioneers in this new technology.

The Villages is a haven for active retirees, where the average age is 66 and a big social calendar spans three downtown areas.

It's a perfect environment to introduce self-driving cars on a large scale, to see how they perform taking residents on short trips around the 750 miles of roads there.

Robotics engineers at a California-based company, Voyage, have developed a driverless taxi service. It makes sense the company's going to try it out in Florida, where people are already fully traumatized by the driving habits of human drivers, and willing to give robots a chance.

Let's hope this works. If all goes well at The Villages, we may see them here one day here, a string of driverless cars pulling in and out of the parking lots of Walgreens, Costco and Publix.

As you might imagine, the driverless cars are big news in The Villages, where the newspaper, The Villages Daily Sun, has announced that there will be a drawing to pick the name of the resident who gets to take the first autonomous-vehicle ride.

Think of him or her as the automotive John Glenn of Florida's condos -- the first Floridian to orbit the clubhouse in an autonomous vehicle.

A lot is at stake here with this launch. So the company's not taking any chances. It's providing human drivers to sit behind the wheel to take over the driving in case something goes wrong.

After all, you've got to maneuver around golf carts, slow moving pedestrians and other Florida drivers.

But if all goes smoothly, the back-up-human drivers will disappear, and residents will just get in and out of empty cars that take them where they want to go.

And if this spreads to other retirement communities across the state, they could end up being the safest spots for travel. Imagine that.

Then we could incorporate driverless cars throughout the rest of Florida. A good place to start would be outside of bars at 2 a.m., where they would safely deliver drunk people to their homes. And also on I-95, where they would be programmed not to tailgate, switch lanes without signaling or drive with their turn signal on when they're not turning.

This will eliminate all those texting-and-driving admonitions, make parents of new teenage drivers feel more at ease, and lower insurance premiums over time as the roads become safer.

So a lot is riding on this experiment in a Florida retirement community.

Mark it on your calendar.

Frank Cerabino writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: fcerabino(at)pbpost.com.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

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