Last weekend, St. Pete Beach hosted the 2017 Robofest Championship. Science and engineering whizzes representing a dozen countries converged on the city’s community center starting on Thursday, June 1, to show off their robotic inventions and compete in a variety of challenges.
The event was sponsored by Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, MI, which handed out renewable $2,000 scholarships to the top teams in the senior division (9-12 grades). The junior division was open to students in grades 5 through 8.
College students were also welcome at Robofest; in fact, an autonomous vehicle created by students at Florida Polytechnic University (FPU) in Lakeland was one of the highlights of the event’s second day. Their professor, Dr. Dean Bushey, prefaced a demonstration of the autonomous vehicle’s capabilities with a presentation about the hot new technology that could make human drivers largely obsolete within the span of a couple of decades.
Bushey discussed how teams of students in his multi-disciplinary Autonomous Systems Car Course used high-tech components like NVIDIA computer processors, an array of sensors (optical, infrared, radar, lidar and laser), onboard cameras and mapping and navigation software to create, test and ultimately race small driverless cars.
Bushey said the course uses ideas and materials developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), adding that it’s “open source” – meaning free for anyone to use and adapt.
“We would love to export this to the high school level,” he said.
Indeed, autonomous vehicle engineering could very well become a robust source of jobs in the coming years as the technology becomes more commonplace. Automaker Audi, for example, in 2014 began testing an autonomous A7 model on the Selmon Expressway in Tampa. And Tesla, known for its electric cars, is also delving into the autonomous vehicle field.
Bushey said the latest wave of autonomous vehicle technology being deployed by the likes of Audi and Tesla could become mainstream in the not-too-distant future.
“By 2021, I think we’ll get a level three or level four vehicle, which means a fully autonomous vehicle, but at a large premium,” he told the Gabber. “So if you can shell out $80,000 …
“However,” he added, “those vehicles will only make up between one and four percent of the market. By 2025, we’ll see a more moderately priced autonomous vehicle from, say, Lexus, and autonomous vehicles will have about 20 to 25 percent market saturation. By 2035, you’ll be able to buy an autonomous Honda, and by that point, I really think it will be about 50 percent market saturation.
“But remember, we’re talking new cars. A 1967 Corvette won’t ever be driverless.”
However, Bushey said public transit agencies and long-haul trucking companies are more likely candidates to adopt autonomous vehicle technology sooner and on a more widespread basis. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), for example, is testing a driverless shuttle system for people who commute to jobs in downtown Tampa.
And if you saw the recent hit movie “Logan” starring Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart, the driverless semi tractor-trailers depicted in the film are more science than fiction, according to Bushey.
“The long-haul trucking industry might be ahead of everybody else,” he said. “The Interstate highway system will be outfitted to allow for autonomous trucks during the long-haul portion of the trip, and then when the truck gets to say, Tampa, a human driver will get in and drive it the last few miles to wherever it’s going. You’ll eliminate the need for long-haul truck drivers and use the existing Interstate highway system since it’s already built.”