"Look Mom! No Driver!" Driverless vehicle testing begins in Auburndale
The completion of the 2.25 autonomous vehicle test track at SunTrax in Auburndale is just the beginning!
Read the full article on what is to come from the June 3, 2019 The Ledger article written by Gary White below.
With the oval testing track completed, focus now shifts to infield testing elements designed for the development and testing of connected and autonomous vehicles.
AUBURNDALE — Florida has one of the world’s most famous asphalt ovals in the Daytona International Speedway.
A slightly smaller track recently completed in Auburndale won’t draw massive crowds for races, but it’s part of a project that could hasten the day when self-driving vehicles take over the roads. Crews finished laying asphalt for the 2¼-mile oval — phase one of SunTrax — in early May, and construction will begin in the coming months on infield elements designed for the development and testing of connected and autonomous vehicles.
The second phase of SunTrax, a project overseen by Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise (part of the Florida Department of Transportation), is scheduled for completion in 2021. The first phase cost $42.5 million, and the second phase has an estimated budget of $100 million, said Kelda Senior, SunTrax’s business development manager.
The money is coming from the Turnpike Enterprise’s budget, which derives from tolls collected on Florida roads.
“As soon as even the oval started to get close to the finish line, our phones started to ring a little bit more frequently with potential users,” SunTrax Program Manager Paul Satchfield said. “We don’t have anybody under contract right now, but we have had some pretty in-depth discussions.”
The 475-acre facility is being built on former pastureland south of Pace Road, west of Berkley Road and just east of the Polk Parkway. As of Thursday, new signs designating roads on the site as SunTrax Boulevard and Transformation Way had been installed.
Construction on phase one began in June 2017. Aside from the pristine oval track, the site now contains a pair of gray-and-white office buildings, at which a few Turnpike Enterprise employees were working Thursday.
Auburndale Mayor Tim Pospichal said he recently had the opportunity to take a ride on the paved track.
“It’s very exciting for the city and very far-reaching what this technology can bring to the world,” Pospichal said, “and we’re thrilled that it’s right here in little old Auburndale, at our back door.
“I just wish it would start tomorrow, I’m so excited about it.”
SunTrax will be the first “purpose-built” facility for the testing of autonomous-vehicle technology, Satchfield said. He said two comparable projects — the American Center for Mobility in Michigan and GoMentum Station in California — employ existing road networks.
SunTrax was originally conceived for a more limited purpose, the development of toll technology. As planning progressed, Satchfield said FDOT leaders realized the 200-acre infield would be an ideal site for testing connected and autonomous vehicles.
Satchfield and Senior provided a tour Thursday afternoon, driving a state vehicle along the gleaming black asphalt. The site remains a quiet place, well removed from central Auburndale and about two miles southeast of Florida Polytechnic University. Natural grasses cover the infield, sparsely dotted with pine trees.
A series of toll gantries have been erected along the oval. The metal frameworks are like those that cover toll roads, allowing drivers with transponders to bypass manual toll payment booths, but with much wider overhead spans. Satchfield pointed to the 288 “J-arms,” appendages on which sensors can be placed.
The oval is built to interstate highway standards, meaning its turns are banked at 10 degrees rather than the 31 degrees of Daytona International Speedway. It can accommodate speeds of up to 70 mph.
The straightaways contain five lanes, plus two wide shoulders that can be converted into travel lanes, Satchfield said.
SunTrax Boulevard, the entry road from the south off Braddock Road, extends to the infield under the track and was blocked by a gate Thursday. Satchfield said planners originally wanted to tunnel under the oval, but the high water table forced the building of an overpass instead.
Final design plans for the infield area are due this month, Satchfield said, and FDOT expects to issue a contract in August, allowing construction to begin in September or October. The target for completion is early 2021, though Satchfield said at this point it might be later that year.
Following the tour, Satchfield and Senior retreated to a room in the main office building and showed an animated video detailing what will be built in the SunTrax infield. Plans call for several testing environments, including a geometry track with artificial undulations and irregular grade changes to measure how well autonomous vehicles perceive and adjust to topographic challenges.
Among the other elements will be a 20-acre technology pad that can be used to simulate urban settings. Satchfield said technology can be used to create virtual buildings and obstacles, while the SunTrax staff will also use movable shipping containers to build physical impediments.
Phase three, scheduled for completion in 2023 or 2024, will include a sensor test chamber inside which users can simulate rain, smoke, fog and other environmental challenges for the technology guiding autonomous vehicles.
An observation tower will be constructed in the infield, giving users a way to monitor testing from above, Satchfield said.
SunTrax will also have a “main entry campus,” featuring a 20,000-square-foot welcome center, along with offices, classrooms and indoor and outdoor event spaces. When the facility is fully built, the Turnpike Enterprise will likely provide 50 to 100 employees, Satchfield said.
Connected and autonomous vehicles have built-in technology that allows them to perceive the driving environment and make adjustments. The word “connected” suggests the capacity of the vehicles to communicate with each other.
In the video Satchfield showed, human drivers present intentional challenges for self-driving cars. A driver veers in front of an autonomous vehicle while merging, and a truck pulling a foam target slows as a self-driving vehicle approaches it from behind.
Satchfield said SunTrax will give manufacturers a controlled setting in which to test out their technology.
“We’re building them a playground so whatever test they can come up with, we’re going to be able to replicate it out here and they can run that scenario repeatedly till they get it to where they say, ‘This sensor, this radar, this lidar (light detection and ranging), this camera — we’ve got it’,” Satchfield said.
The infield plans include a 27,000-square-foot warehouse building and a workshop twice as large filled with 2,800-square-foot bays. Satchfield said the bays, stocked with tools and vehicle lifts, will be designed for privacy, so that users of adjacent units won’t know what is happening next door.
Companies will rent space at SunTrax, and the revenue will cover the cost of operations and maintenance and help to repay what FDOT has invested in the facility, Satchfield said.
And who are the likely renters? Satchfield said he expects interest ranging from original equipment manufacturers — legacy companies such as Ford and General Motors — to smaller outfits that specialize in making individual components.
“When we first came up with this idea, it was like, ‘OK, who’s going to use it?’ ” Satchfield said. “I lost a lot of sleep over, ‘We’re going to build this and nobody’s going to come.’ And then as it’s been going on and you start to get the phone calls from around the U.S., and then you start to get the phone calls from Spain and you get the phone calls from Germany, you get the phone calls from India, and it’s, ‘Oh my, it’s not big enough. We need more’.”
FDOT owns an extra 75 acres to the north of the SunTrax oval, offering the ability for expansion at some point.
Satchfield said autonomous vehicles promise many potential benefits, most notably improved highway safety.
“Ninety percent of all accidents are caused by us — not the road, not the weather, not the car, but the person behind the wheel because we’re distracted with texting or changing the radio station or daydreaming or we’re impaired,” he said. “It’s estimated when we get to fully connected and autonomous vehicles, which is still a good number of years away, that number (of fatal accidents) will be reduced by 90%.”
One area of development involves truck “platooning,” using advanced technology to have self-driving trucks travel together in packs. The American Trucking Association has said the nation faces a critical shortage of drivers, and autonomous trucks could alleviate that problem.
Senior mentioned other applications, such as low-speed shuttle vehicles and “mobility on demand,” or ride-sharing and ride-hailing services.
Satchfield said FDOT selected the SunTrax site because it needed a large property reasonably close to its Orlando headquarters with good proximity to highways. Access to the facility will become even easier next year when an interchange with the Polk Parkway is added at Braddock Road.
The location is convenient for Florida Poly, which opened in 2012 and specializes in STEM subjects. Florida Poly created the Advanced Mobility Institute, a research arm that has forged partnerships with SunTrax and other entities.
The university offers a program in transportation and logistics and a course in autonomous systems and self-driving vehicles, developed in partnership with MIT.
The Florida Legislature included a one-time allocation of $500,000 for the Advanced Mobility Institute in its recently passed budget. That item is subject to a potential veto by Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has not yet received the budget.
“There’s a great synergy between what they’re doing and what we’re doing,” Satchfield said, “and it’s great for this whole area — not just Auburndale and Lakeland but Central Florida.”
SunTrax has certainly created enthusiasm in Auburndale. Though it won’t generate direct tax revenue for the city, the facility promises economic benefits, Pospichal said.
“It will be a boon for Auburndale; it will be a boon for Polk County,” Pospichal said. “I think it’s going to be able to bring that high-level, educated person coming into our county and bring up the level of jobs. At least that’s what I’m hoping for.”