HENDRY COUNTY — Hendry County has found itself on the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology thanks to Starsky Robotics.
Back in February, the robotics company tested a self-driving semi-trailer truck along a closed 7-mile stretch of County Road 833 in Hendry County. Although a human sat in the cab during the test to observe, Starsky has set the goal of making a delivery without a human present by year’s end. There will still be a human element involved, however, as Starsky plans to have personnel pilot the truck remotely for the first mile and last mile of every delivery.
Normally, one would associate this kind of future tech happening only in Silicon Valley, but legislation put forth by Florida State Sen. Jeff Brandes aiming to make the state one of the leaders in autonomous vehicles has already started attracting tech companies. Beginning in 2012, the state Senate passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Brandes that made it legal for self-driving cars to operate in Florida.
According to Starsky Robotics co-founder and CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner was crucial in bringing the tech company to Hendry County.
“When I met with Commissioner Turner, he indicated that Hendry had roads we could use and that he’d love to host us and try to help us out,” said Mr. Seltz-Axmacher. “It was really his leadership that put Hendry County in our minds.”
According to researchers at Strategy Analytics, self-driving cars could add $2 trillion to the U.S. economy, and the Florida Legislature is aiming to put the state on the front lines of that economic boom.
Still, self-driving technology faces an uphill battle in the court of public opinion. AAA released a study in May in which 73 percent of adult drivers in the U.S. reported they would be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car. Even among tech-savvy millennials there is still a skepticism for tech companies to overcome. Sixty-four percent of millennials reported to AAA that they’d be too afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle.
“Despite their potential to make our roads safer in the long run, consumers have high expectations for safety,” said Greg Brannon, AAA’s director of Automotive Engineering and Industry Relations. “Our results show that any incident involving an autonomous vehicle is likely to shake consumer trust, which is a critical component to the widespread acceptance of autonomous vehicles.”
Uber made headlines in March when one of its autonomous vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. Uber had mandated that a human operator be present in all of its autonomous vehicles in order to take control in a difficult situation or when the vehicle encounters something it can’t handle. According to Tempe police, the Uber operator inside the vehicle was watching a TV show on her phone when the car struck the pedestrian.
Uber announced in May that it was shutting down its self-driving car operation in Arizona and focusing its efforts in San Fransisco and Pittsburgh.
“There is definitely a healthy skepticism out there,” said Mr. Seltz-Axmacher of the AAA report on self-driving vehicles. “About 35,000 people die every year in auto accidents. That’s about 100 people per day. And that’s actually really terrifying to think about, but it’s so common that it’s not newsworthy. Things that tend to be more rare make the headlines. But the autonomous industry needs to do a lot to prove that it’s safe.
“Really, what we were testing in Hendry County was our safety architecture,” he explained. “What we were testing was when our system fails, which any man-made system will, does everything go wrong or does something safe happen? And when our system failed, our safety architecture was able to bring the truck to a minimal risk condition. I think more tests like that will help with the public perception.”
Mr. Seltz-Axmacher says there’s a strong chance that Starsky Robotics will be back in Hendry for more tests in the future.
“Ultimately, we plan to have multiple telo-operations centers throughout Florida,” said Mr. Seltz-Axmacher. “I think having local leaders like Commissioner Turner makes Hendry County a very attractive place to come and do business.”