Nothing but Sunshine for AVs in Florida

Florida has become a hotbed for self-driving cars, thanks to its mild weather, unique demographics, lenient laws and an ambitious state senator.

Why it matters: States at the forefront of autonomous vehicle testing stand to reap the economic benefits — and perhaps problems, too — of self-driving cars.

  • With Congress stalled on federal legislation, Florida and other forward-looking states have an outsized opportunity to help shape the laws that will one day govern AVs.

The driving force behind Florida’s ascension is state Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, a former platoon leader in the Iraq War who, as a freshman legislator in 2011, turned to the internet to search for a “big idea” he could champion.

  • He was inspired by a 2010 TED Talk by Stanford AI expert Sebastian Thrun, then-head of Google’s nascent driverless car project.
  • In 2012, Brandes helped push an AV policy through the Florida legislature, becoming only the second state to do so, behind Nevada.

Then last June, Florida enacted a new law (co-sponsored by Brandes) that makes it even more attractive for companies to test and deploy AVs in the state.

  • Under the law, a fully autonomous vehicle can operate without a human safety driver, as long as the company has $1 million in insurance.
  • California and Arizona also allow companies to operate AVs without safety drivers, but each has restrictions.
  • Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order on AVs, for example, is not baked into law so it could be reversed with the stroke of a pen by the next governor.
  • In California, companies are prohibited from collecting revenue from AV passengers without a special permit, and none have been granted, AV consultant Grayson Brulte tells Axios.
    • “California has no path to profitability. In Florida, there is a path, because you can charge people,” he says.
  • “We have the right ecosystem, and we’re allowing companies to thrive,” Brandes said in an interview. “Most state laws hurt, rather than help” AV development.

What’s happening: The AV-friendly environment has sparked plenty of activity in the Sunshine State, which recently launched the second phase of construction on SunTrax, a 475-acre AV testing facility near Orlando.

Other cutting-edge transportation technology is also being deployed in Florida.

  • Tampa, for example, was selected by the federal government as one of the first cities to pilot connected vehicle technology on real streets, enabling cars, buses and streetcars to communicate with each other to reduce traffic and improve safety.

The bottom line: More than 300,000 people a year are moving to Florida, already the country’s third most populous state, with the population projected to hit 26 million by 2030. Growth like that requires preparation, says Brandes.

As featured in Axios on December 13, 2019.

Palm Beach Consultant: Florida is Moving Toward Autonomous Vehicles

Florida is on the road to an era of driverless cars with its good weather, popularity as a tourist destination, and demographics. That’s the assessment of two advocates of the technology — one a Palm Beach consultant and the other a state senator from St. Petersburg who says Florida is already a leader in the push toward autonomous vehicles.

“I think in the next five years there will be an autonomous vehicle service running here on the island,” said Grayson Brulte, president of Brulte & Co., which relocated from Beverly Hills, California to Palm Beach in May.

One of the reasons for the move was that California regulations allow deployment of self-driving cars, but companies can’t charge fares for the rides. Overall, regulations there are too “strenuous” and “there’s no path to revenue,” said Brulte, who works with trucking and other transportation companies to help them sort through government regulations and promote their services to the public.

He predicts that 10 to 15 percent of cars on the road could be automated by 2040, and experiments have been ongoing in Florida.

Those programs will be discussed and debated, along with the future of electric vehicles and shared vehicles, at the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit at the Hilton Miami Downtown on Thursday and Friday. Brulte serves on the organizing committee.

One program is Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based autonomous vehicle startup funded by Ford and VW Group, which has been testing Ford Fusion hybrids in Miami in the Wynwood area. A paid service is expected to begin soon.

“In terms of public use deployment timing, we remain on plan for initial commercialization beginning in 2021,” Argo AI director of communications Alan Hall said via email.

Another operates in Central Florida in The Villages as the Voyage Auto pilot program.

“When fully operational, all 125,000 residents will have the ability to summon a self-driving car to their doorstep using the Voyage mobile app, then travel autonomously anywhere within the community,” the company says on its website,

Waymo, operating in Phoenix area, has a fully driverless car with no driver in the front seat. “You’re watching the wheel go,” said Brulte.

But right now, almost all of the vehicles operating on the road have a safety driver, who sits behind the wheel ready to take over if there’s a problem. And there’s sometimes an engineer in the passenger seat collecting data.

Although the Florida Legislature cleared the way in May with a bill allowing companies to field fully automated vehicles, there are still hurdles to cross. Critics worry about liability issues, such as who’s at fault if there are injuries or damage in a crash.

Also, Brulte said, while some of the best engineers in the world are working on refining the technology, “the big problem is how to get the public to use them.

“It really comes down to demographics. It’s interesting that if you look at 82 to 85 and older, in terms of mobility they’re afraid of being attacked by an Uber driver. When you get into mid-40s into upper-60s the issue is they don’t want to give up control. When you get into the younger demographics, it’s OK, I want to go where I want when I want and I don’t want to have to wait,” Brulte said.

A majority of younger people are OK with automated vehicles or not having a car, he said. They don’t want to have to pay the cost of insurance or maintenance — even parking is an expense in bigger cities.

“It’s like, ’I can just go in an Uber on dad’s credit card and go wherever I want.‴

Advocates believe, though, that automated vehicles will eventually be a boon to the state’s older residents.

Driverless vehicles represent “an incredible opportunity for the elderly and those with disabilities,” said State Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored this year’s bill that tweaked regulations for self-driving vehicles. He’s also the founder of the Florida Automated Vehicles Summit.

Will we see a time when most of the vehicles on the road will be automated?

“Absolutely, but I think it’s decades away,” Brandes, who represents Pinellas County, said in a phone interview.

Driverless trucks have already been tested on the Florida Turnpike, he said. By 2025 to 2030, “you’ll begin to see them roll out in a more meaningful way.”

The biggest shift in the next 10 years will be toward electric vehicles, he said. Up to 20 percent of all vehicles sold by 2030 may be electric.

“And you’ll see an ongoing march toward more automation. Whether that’s full autonomy or just highly automated, you’ll see some combination of electrification and automation.”

Accidents involving automated vehicles are news, but Brandes says 95 percent of all accidents are caused by human error. “To the extent we can reduce human error, we should be able to make roads radically safer and save thousands of lives.”

Since so many of the programs are experimental, there’s not much meaningful data on accident rates, but Brulte thinks automated vehicles will ultimately be proven safer.

“The vehicles are not distracted,” he said. “They’re not staring at a phone, and distracted driving is an epidemic. Self-driving cars have one mission — to get you to your destination safely.”

As featured in The Palm Beach Post on November 19, 2019.

Waymo wants to offer Robotaxis in California. But the State insists they be Free

Waymo wants to deploy a robotaxi service for the general public in parts of California as soon as possible. But that’s unlikely, the company says, because California says it has to offer the service for free.

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission allowed driverless “robotaxi” pilot programs in the state but banned permit-holders from charging fares. The ban is considered temporary but has no timeline. Some industry analysts say the uncertainty could put California’s reputation as the world leader in driverless technology at risk.

The free-or-nothing mandate makes no sense to Waymo, the driverless vehicle arm of Google’s Alphabet, or to other driverless vehicle start-ups hoping to establish themselves in a new industry that could produce the biggest change in ground transportation since the invention of the automobile.

Waymo requires a “commercial path forward” before it can offer Californians the kind of driverless taxi service it’s already running across 100 square miles in Phoenix, according to George Ivanov, Waymo’s head of policy development and regulatory initiatives.

Without the ability to charge fees, Ivanov told the commission at an Oct. 22 hearing in San Francisco, “any expansion would be difficult” in the company’s home state.

In July, Waymo began a commission-approved pilot program to ferry Waymo and Google employees and guests through parts of Silicon Valley in driverless cars for free.

Waymo doesn’t need fare money to fund operations — Alphabet is an enormous profit machine, and holds more than $100 billion in cash. But Ivanov explained that experimenting with customer response to different fare structures is essential to building out the robotaxi business, which would be like Uber or Lyft but without a human driver.

Smaller companies hoping to grab a piece of what could grow into an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars want to be able to charge fares too. “There are commercial goals we are working toward,” Bert Kaufman, head of regulatory affairs for Zoox, told the commission.

Based in San Francisco, Zoox is developing a driverless vehicle with plans to deploy initially in Las Vegas. Kaufman said it wants to offer the service in California but it can’t plan for deployment if it doesn’t know when it might be able to charge fares.

Experimenting with fare structures at different times of day and in different locations would help a company know where and when to begin offering a full-fledged commercial service, Kaufman said at the Oct. 22 hearing. “Regulatory certainty” is one reason the company might start out in Nevada, he said. It would help, he told the commission, “knowing that California is actually open for business.”

In California, the state Department of Motor Vehicles regulates vehicle safety and issues permits for driverless vehicle testing and deployment. The CPUC, whose main task is regulating utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric, also oversees commercial transport services, including bus companies, limousine services, Uber and Lyft. It’s up to the CPUC to decide whether companies can charge fares.

The commission declined to make commissioners or staff members available for an interview. A commission spokeswoman pointed to a document issued in June 2018 that set rules for driverless vehicle pilot programs in California.

“The free rides will identify the pilot program as different from ordinary transportation,” the document reads, “and, therefore, will encourage the public to be more mindful of their experience and provide critical feedback to the commission and the permit-holders.”

Other driverless companies at the hearing — which included Cruise, Aurora, and AutoX — seemed baffled by the reasons given for banning paid driverless pilot programs.

“It’s very important we’re able to charge for our service not just for us but for the entire industry in California,” said Jewel Z. Li of AutoX, which is developing autonomous technology and robotaxi logistics systems in the U.S. and in China. It’s important, she said, to test “real-life sustainable business models.”

If companies eschew California for more welcoming states, the economic effect is likely to be small. In any case, it’s not the CPUC’s responsibility to consider economic growth in the state. In the past, some experts have lauded California’s cautious approach to driverless regulation. But “California runs a risk of losing some of its mantle of being the center of driverless vehicle innovation,” said Mike Ramsey, an automotive technology analyst at Gartner.

Ramsey also is interested in hearing more detail about the commission’s objection to fare charging. “This is not a safety issue,” he said. “This is about the capability of a company to recover some of the costs, if not to profit” from technology development.

Grayson Brulte, head of driverless vehicle consultants Brulte & Company, earlier this year moved his headquarters to the Miami area from Beverly Hills, because, he said, California’s bureaucracy is dragging its feet.

The future was being deployed in Florida, so we relocated our company to Florida to be part of the future,” he said. Florida’s driverless regulations are either more lax or more forward thinking than California’s, depending on whom you ask.

Advocates for blind people and for small-business owners asked the commission at the recent hearing to allow fare charging. Only one person supported the idea of banning fares in pilot programs — a representative of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, who said the commission should first ensure the public interest is being served.

After the hearing, one company representative said the commission is taking too much time making decisions. The person asked not to be identified for fear of antagonizing commission members.

The CPUC issued its permit rules in June 2018. The October hearing, called a “workshop,” was the first public discussion held since then.

The Times asked the commission spokeswoman if there is a timeline for addressing the industry’s fare-ban complaints.

“As for next steps,” she wrote in an email, “we have committed to soliciting written comments.”

As featured in The Los Angeles Times on November 1, 2019.

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.

Regulations Hampering AV Innovation

GM Cruise’s decision to postpone deployment of its autonomous, on-demand ride-sharing fleet signals a larger concern automakers should consider when pushing AV innovation, Grayson Brulte, president of Brulte & Co., told Auto Finance News.

Regulations are one of the biggest hurdles for automakers invested in AV, Brulte said. “The rockstars and the biggest assets to AV companies are the policy staff,” he said. “The policy team — not the engineers — needs to make the decision on where to deploy the services,” he said, adding that each state has different laws related to autonomous vehicles.

California, where GM Cruise is based, is by far the most restrictive when it comes to regulations on autonomous vehicles, which hampers innovation, Brulte said. In fact, California prohibits for-profit autonomous vehicle services.

GM Cruise Chief Executive Dan Ammann announced on Medium that the San Francisco-based company intends to expand its footprint in the city to increase testing and validation miles driven. A company spokesman confirmed that the company still plans to unveil a car-sharing service in San Francisco, although he declined to disclose a timeline or additional details. The company currently offers an autonomous ride-sharing service for its employees.

General Motors, the parent company for GM Cruise, had previously said that it hoped to deploy 2,500 modified Chevy Bolts as part of a controlled, on-demand ride-sharing fleet at the end of 2019, according to Reuters. Honda has also invested $750 million in the AV manufacturer.

As featured in Auto Finance News on July 30, 2019.