By Dr. Randy Avent – President, Florida Polytechnic University

Accurately predicting the future is notoriously difficult.

Popular Mechanics wrote in 1949 that future computers would weigh just 1.5 tons. It was expected in 1955 that nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners “will probably be a reality in 10 years.” For decades, the forecast for self-driving cars seemed destined for a similar fate as a failed pipedream. But that’s changing rapidly.

Truly autonomous vehicles — the kind where you work on the crossword puzzle while your car takes you to work — are probably 10 years or more from reality. They are Level 5 on the five-level scale of autonomous capability established in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Transportation. By comparison, your standard cruise control is Level 1.

Today’s technology is rapidly approaching somewhere in the middle, thanks to fierce competition between the major automakers. Both Toyota and Renault-Nissan have set ambitious goals of Levels 3 and 4 autonomous cars for highway conditions by 2020. Ford Motor CEO Mark Fields told CNBC in early 2017 that a Level 4 vehicle with no gas pedal or steering wheel for navigating defined areas would be ready in 2021.

Florida is seizing the challenge, and has positioned itself to be a leader in this global race.

State legislators sent a clear message in 2016 when they legally cleared the testing of autonomous vehicles on Florida’s roads. A year later, the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership was established. This partnership brings together academic, private sector and government agencies to advance autonomous technology and places the sunshine state center stage in this key development period.

Florida Polytechnic University has partnered with Florida’s Turnpike Enterprise, who is developing SunTrax, a 400-acre site in Polk County to test new transportation technology. The 2.25-mile oval track will be designed for high-speed and multiple lanes of travel, while the in-field will include a simulated downtown urban core to test transit, vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle interactions.

Florida Poly is also developing a key component of autonomous technology: human ingenuity and innovation. As the state’s only STEM-focused public university, we’re teaching the programming languages and engineering skills needed to create autonomous vehicles. But we’re also nurturing a mindset that challenges conventional approaches to problem-solving.

Our student Randy Lopez started his own company as a university junior with his Logentix product. It was originally envisioned as an after-market device to provide older cars autonomous capabilities. Today, Logentix has proved its potential in the commercial shipping sector. Both Publix and Tesla have expressed interest in using the algorithm developed by the Logentix team to begin platooning autonomous trucks.

This fall, a team of students at Florida Poly created a 4D model that transformed years of research by the city of Jacksonville into the best autonomous public transportation models. Their impressive design won second place in an international AV design contest.

Here’s the bottom line. With Florida Turnpike Enterprise building the most advanced test track in the nation, Florida Polytechnic University can focus on testing the technology that makes vehicles autonomous. This technology – sensors, signal processing, wireless networks, data fusion and artificial intelligence – is what needs to evolve for autonomous technology to reach the mainstream.

This is where Florida Poly continues to excel. Our approach to teaching is grounded in hands-on projects and supported by advanced high-tech equipment capable of making prototypes out of inspiration. Students are encouraged by professors with deep industry and research backgrounds to think big and challenge the status quo. This high-energy, creative environment is the fertile ground where the next generation of autonomous vehicles will grow.

Learn more about Florida Polytechnic University.

Florida Polytechnic University was established in 2012 in Lakeland. Its mission is to prepare 21st-century learners in the advanced fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to become innovative problem-solvers and high-tech professionals.

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