Where Florida Can Prove its Autonomous Vehicle Chops

Florida’s public roads have hosted some of the more noteworthy and novel self-driving tests.

Starsky Robotics sent a driverless tractor-trailer onto Florida’s Turnpike with no human aboard. Ford Motor Co. and autonomous vehicle partner Argo AI are learning about pedestrian behavior in Miami, a place executives from both companies call a “double black diamond city,” an analogy that makes its point — even if it’s an awkward blend of skiing terms and a sunbathing metropolis.

Now those companies, and others looking to further probe the limits of their self-driving technology, will have a dedicated proving ground in the state.

In weeks, the Florida Department of Transportation and Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise will open SunTrax, a 475-acre operation between Orlando and Tampa that gives manufacturers and tech companies a closed course to run repeatable tests.

No opening date has been announced, but Paul Satchfield, SunTrax’s program manager, says there’s already demand to use the proving ground’s 2.25-mile oval track, the first component in place in what’s expected to be a multiyear construction process.

“I know there’s three companies that would love to get in here right now,” he said.

Construction on the oval, four toll gantries and an office building ended in mid-June at a cost of $42.5 million.

The proving ground is expected to formally open for business before the second phase of construction begins in late September. That phase will add a cityscape, 20-acre skid pad and 20 garages for companies that want to establish an ongoing presence. A third phase is expected to add, among other things, a chamber designed for all-weather testing. The project should be completed in 2023.

Since blueprints were sketched, Satchfield said roughly two dozen companies have expressed interest in using SunTrax, a number that hints at Florida’s increasing status as a popular testing ground.

Legislation passed this year ensured an industry-friendly regulatory environment. Now the test track may be another plank as Florida burnishes its credentials to attract more testing business.

“It’s a differentiator,” said Grayson Brulte, a business consultant who specializes in working with states and governments on innovation and technology strategies.

“In Florida, companies will be able to do complex testing, then go and deploy on the roads around there. It’s compelling, and it’s a further indicator that Florida is going to continue to invest to attract that industry.”

Competition, of course, exists for companies interested in testing on public roads and private proving grounds.

More than 60 companies hold permits to test automated vehicles in California, many of which use the GoMentum Station test site in the Bay Area.

Michigan, home of the traditional auto industry, has two test tracks. Mcity, in Ann Arbor, is used for early-stage testing and research, and 11 miles away in Ypsilanti, the American Center for Mobility is used for later-stage testing and validation.

The American Center for Mobility bears the most similarity to SunTrax, especially given both have highway testing loops and garage space.

But the two operations have different funding models. The American Center for Mobility received some funding from the Michigan Economic Development Corp., and companies that were flagship and founding sponsors of the center paid as much as $5 million.

SunTrax, on the other hand, is funded by the turnpike through tolls, and leaders eschewed the idea of sponsors.

“From day one, we said, ‘We are not doing the ACM model,’ ” Satchfield said. “You don’t have to pay just to get in the door. You come out here, if you’re a small company, we’ll find a way to get you out here.”

As featured in Automotive News on August 12, 2019.