Driverless vehicle takes route to future

The Meridian Shuttle, which is now on display at the Museum of Science and Industry across the street from campus, is the first publicly available driverless vehicle. ORACLE PHOTO/CHRISTOPHER COLLIER

At the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) what was once science fiction and speculation has become a rideable exhibit with implications for larger projects in the future. 

Developed in France, the Meridian Shuttle exhibit was designed for use in cities with heavy foot traffic and is the first driverless vehicle available for public trial in the U.S.

“It goes up to up to 25 miles an hour, however, in our experience here inside the lobby at MOSI we only take it to 3.7 miles per hour for safety reasons,” Eric Sigler said.

One of MOSI’s official STEAMpunks, Sigler’s position involves entertaining guests through live science shows, demonstrations and operation of exhibits like the Meridian Shuttle. His role in the exhibit is to set the course of the vehicle, press the start button and then educate the guests while the shuttle drives itself through the course.

“It has been programmed to do certain elements of the Florida State Driver’s Test,” Sigler said. “Such as, three-point turns, stopping at the stop sign, reversing and parking.”

According to Sigler, the vehicle uses a laser system to read its surroundings and decide how to get to the directed location. When the vehicle was first brought into the museum, he said it was manually operated with an Xbox 360 controller in order to map out its surroundings. 

MOSI Director of Exhibits Johnny Scotello said autonomous vehicle research provides various opportunities for state and private entities and it’s hoped that universities and cities will adopt the technology as a safer and greener alternative to public transport. 

“It runs on two batteries, it has two computers,” Scotello said. “It pumps basically 30 lasers per second per each system.”

The $250,000 prototype shuttle can be programmed to operate continuously on run-time patterns similar to a bus or subway schedule. On an onboard touchscreen monitor, a map of what the vehicle learned about its surroundings is displayed while the laser system scans for any obstacles in its way. If an obstacle is detected, the shuttle will stop until it is removed or the vehicle detects an alternative path.

“It has computerized fail-safes so within two meters, it will stop,” Scotello said. “Within two meters your average person won’t stop.”

According to Scotello, the Meridian Shuttle has protections not just for the mechanical components and the passengers, but a robust system of protections against cyber-crime and computer viruses. 

“Just to turn on the vehicle, there are multiple passwords required for multiple computers,” Scotello said. “Multiple computers need to sync before it will actually even initialize.”

According to Scotello and others at MOSI, the technology is close to being ready for practical, everyday use. 

Scotello said the efficiency and potential to save on power and gas make a future iteration of the shuttle an alternative to most localized public transportation including bussing systems like the Bull Runner.

“This would be perfect around Ybor … the other application is around a university, especially where parking is an issue,” Scotello said. 

Some of the obstacles to making the shuttle accessible in large cities across the country involve legal issues and questions of logistics. 

“There are states like Nevada that have opened (driverless vehicle legislature) up for discussion,” Scotello said. “In the U.K., any public street is actually legal now to test a driverless vehicle on. In Florida we are just beginning to scratch the surface.” 

The driverless vehicles are equipped with a manual override switch even though the vehicle is supposedly 1,000 times safer than conventional vehicles according to statistical analysis and test runs, the reality of those statistics remains to be seen on a larger scale. 

Two examples of the safety and legality of using the vehicle at the societal level are whether sending a child to school or an intoxicated person home in one would be against the law. In other words, does the vehicle require a sober, licensed driver to be lawfully operated?

Scotello also said, in order to commit to energy conservation and safety, Americans may have to let go of some cultural traditions, like car ownership. 

“There’s all sorts of interesting questions that I think the public has to kind of give their opinion on before the legislation can even occur in this area,” he said. “The United States is a car culture. If you are in a very urban city in Europe, like London or Milan or Madrid, cars just don’t happen the same way. The roads aren’t big enough … here everyone owns one or two cars and we think nothing of a really long car commute because we’re proud and happy with our cars.”

Engineer and Induct Technologies CEO Pierre Lefevre began the project roughly 10 years ago in France, with the goal to remove personal cars from the road in order to clear busy streets and provide a safe alternative to buses and cars. 

“We are looking for removing private cars from inside campuses and cities,” Lefevre said. “So if we put the electronic into normal cars, there will simply be more cars. The goal is to have areas in the city where we can remove private cars and have a bit of service.” 

The future iterations of the vehicle could be summoned through a smartphone app, according to Lefevre. Currently, there are 18 prototypes of the vehicle and each is 30 percent cheaper than a traditional bus with driver. 

“Most important for us is localization,” Lefevre said. “The most important thing is that the vehicle knows when it is lost. We have a very specific technology for localization. We don’t use GPS as you can see, because you could not be inside. We use mapping with radars so the vehicle knows the map the first time.” 

The exhibit will be open until September, along with a drone and robotics exhibit. In early July, a USF-designed robot named Baxter, which can use facial recognition and play connect four with visitors, will also have an exhibit.