Following behind a small phalanx of Audis traveling down an otherwise empty stretch of the Selmon Expressway’s elevated lanes, Kaushik Raghu takes his hands off the steering wheel of the gray 2012 Audi A7 with a vanity license plate reading “SELF1E.” Yet the sleek German sedan continues rolling along, staying in the lane and keeping pace with the cars ahead of it.
Raghu’s short hands-free journey on a scorching Sunday afternoon is the prequel to a much more formal event on Monday, during which Audi engineers will show off their piloted driving technology to Gov. Rick Scott and State Sen. Jeff Brandes, a driverless car proponent.
During a short break in a day-long test before the big reveal, Raghu demonstrates how the car takes over for the driver in bumper-to-bumper traffic at speeds up to 40 miles per hour.
Over the course of four miles on the road that was shut down for the testing, Raghu lets the automated A7 take over as the cars ahead of it stop, speed up and slow down, exhibiting the technology for a handful of journalists following in chase cars.
“I love it,” says Raghu after stopping for a few beauty shots of the car with the Tampa skyline in the background. “I’m not driving it. It is doing the driving.”
To make that happen, Audi has bundled several sensory technologies from existing vehicles — like those assisting drivers to stay in their lanes and avoid blind spots — with newer equipment, says Brad Stertz, communications director for Audi of America. The demonstration vehicle has between 17 and 20 sensors using radar, sonar and lidar — a laser-based remote sensing technology. Working with cameras, the system, developed in Germany, “makes millions and billions of decisions every minute,” Stertz said.
It will still be about five years before the system as tested will hit the showrooms, says Stertz, adding that he expects it to ultimately cost a little more than the current Audi sensor packages that run upwards of $10,000.
But you will have to wait another couple of decades for a car that really drives itself, he says.
Aside from technological hurdles, there are potential regulatory roadblocks as well.
While states regulate drivers, the federal government regulates vehicles.
“Who will regulate a driverless car?” Stertz asks.
The Selmon Expressway was selected as a test site because of its certification as a testing ground for the new technology, says Stertz.
Aside from testing the technology on realistic traffic conditions, engineers wanted to test another factor.
“We wanted to see how it works in the heat,” he says.
Florida is among a handful of states receptive to the technology, and this test will “call attention to the way Florida is approaching its laws dealing with this new frontier,” Stertz says. Florida’s stand on automated vehicles is “progressive compared to the way other states are handling this type of technology.”
To demonstrate the technology to Scott, the roadway will be closed between 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday. The gates at Meridian Avenue and 34th Street will be closed, but the elevated highway will remain open east of U.S. 301.