Driverless Taxi Service Coming to The Villages

MacCallister Higgins,  a co-founder and director of growth for the self-driving taxi by Voyage, drives the vehicle Dec. 6, 2017 around Lake Sumter Landing Market Square.

A momentous technological event will take place soon in The Villages.

The unveiling of a pilot program, perhaps a first for Florida — a driverless taxi — is headed to The Villages.

And one lucky Villager will get the opportunity to be the

first passenger.

Voyage Auto, a San Jose, California, startup company, officially will announce today its second rollout of a technology-laden hybrid Ford Fusion taxi — dubbed “Marge” after the character on “The Simpsons” television show. The first test program launched in October 2017 in a small retirement community in San Jose.

“When we heard about

The Villages, we couldn’t imagine a better place for a second deployment of this technology because of the scale and its location,” Oliver Cameron, Voyage Auto CEO, told the Daily Sun.

The introduction of this new service could provide a tremendous enhancement to the lives of many residents of The Villages, said Fred Briggs, president of the VHA, The Villages homeowner advocacy and community service group and the community’s largest residential lifestyle club.

“I think it’s terrific,” said the Haciendas of Mission Hills resident. “Villagers are known to be interested in the cutting edge of technology. And there are a lot of people in The Villages who could take advantage of this service as we age. This would be a tremendous service.”

Safety emerged as the priority last year when Cameron, MacCallister Higgins and three other engineers co-founded the Silicon Valley high-tech venture.

Fitted with interlinked radar, Lidar, GPS and camera technology, the vehicle is designed to arrive and stop within 3.9 inches of the programmed destination, Higgins said.

“Obviously, one of the things that we care about the most is safety, and a subset of that is the security of the vehicle itself,” Higgins, the company’s director of growth, said recently during a brief demonstration of the car’s capabilities. “The sensor on the top (of the car) gets 1.2 million points per second of measurement, so we can fully map and actually see all the obstacles in front of us. It can see a lot farther and react a lot faster than a human driver.”

Once they complete their tests, the Voyage team is looking forward to moving ahead with its unique partnership with The Villages, Cameron said.

It’s a venture that Kelsea Manly, The Villages director of operations, believes will be a huge benefit for residents.

“The Villages always strives to be creative and forward-thinking to offer our residents the best in active living,” she said. “This is an exciting step into the future, giving Villagers another option for safe, affordable transportation.”

Voyage Auto’s confidence in The Villages builds upon its recent first deployment at a private retirement community of about 4,000 residents in San Jose.

“We got such a great reception there,” Cameron said.

But Florida’s Friendliest Hometown poses a more realistic challenge than the San Jose retirement community because of the public roadways and accompanying multimodal paths along the roadways, Higgins said.

“We’re not dependent on finding lane lines or watching for that stuff,” he said. “We actually have human animators who go through and map all areas at a very high level of precision. We have humans who go through (the community) and say, ‘This is where the car can travel, this is where golf carts are going to be.’ It’s actually very interesting, especially in retirement communities, because of the amount of golf carts. That’s not something you really see anywhere else.”

During the first deployment, Higgins said, the San Jose retirement community didn’t have separate lanes for golf carts.

“They drive halfway on the road and halfway in the bike lane,” he said. “So, that’s been one of the earliest problems to overcome — learning how to do motion planning around these vehicles safely. So, it’s actually great that there are separate, distinct lanes for other types of vehicles in The Villages.”

In the beginning of the pilot program, Voyage will use safety drivers until engineers program the vehicle to react to all obstacles and challenges, Higgins said. And the company carries specialized insurance that goes beyond standard automotive coverage.

“The first rollout, and the way we’re operating right now, there is a human driver sitting, watching the car in case anything happens,” he said. “So then, as we start solving those types of problems, as we start moving forward, recognizing police officers, recognizing sirens, learning to pull over when these types of things happen, we can begin to take that driver out.”

Once that happens, Higgins said, a monitor at a control station would intercede anytime the vehicle encounters a foreign situation.

“The cool part of that is one of the ways that we’re approaching that problem is that the car has an internet connection and has the ability to be taken over remotely,” he said. “So one of the first steps toward solving that problem when the car recognizes something that it doesn’t know how to handle on its own, it can call in a human operator to take over for a little bit while the vehicle is still driving.”

Existing state law permits such “autonomous vehicle” pilot programs, said Steven Polzin, Ph.D., director of mobility policy research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. The USF research center also co-sponsors the annual Florida Automated Vehicles Summit during the fall in Tampa.

“Florida, like many states, encourages testing and deployment because of economic development,” he said. “Because we have a lot of seniors, this also is going to be a real benefit to the state.”

That lawmaking work continues into the current legislative session that started Tuesday in Tallahassee at the behest of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a champion of autonomous vehicles.

One bill he filed would permit the following:

“That a licensed human operator is not required to operate a fully autonomous vehicle; authorizing a fully autonomous vehicle to operate in this state regardless of whether a licensed human operator is physically present in the vehicle,” according to Senate Bill 712.

Meanwhile, Voyage wants to make The Villages rollout, which will begin early this year, as fun as possible for residents, Cameron said. And it will include the random selection of the first Villager to ride as a passenger.

Residents who live within the initial targeted pilot area — in and around Lake Sumter Landing — will be permitted to register for the ride on the company’s website, voyage.auto, or directly at goo.gl/ayu8My.

David R. Corder is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5241, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.