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Jeff Brandes on the future of driving: ‘Jack, take the wheel’

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Standing in front of the Tallahassee Automobile Museum on a rainy Tuesday morning, Sen. Jeff Brandes was talking about a coming technology that will revolutionize travel as much as the Model-T Fords on display inside the building did in the early 20th century.

In the background was an Audi A7 “piloted driving” concept car named Jack, ready to take him and other legislators on a “look-Ma, no hands!” spin down nearby Interstate 10.

Brandes was ahead of the curve in 2012 when he introduced a law making Florida one of the first few states to allow the testing of what are known in the business as autonomous and connected vehicles. But even he’s surprised at how fast the technology has improved — and how soon driverless vehicles may come to U.S. roads and highways.

“We’re not far. I think people would be shocked at how quickly this technology is evolving to understand how close we are to a driverless future,” he said. “And it’s not decades away; it’s years away.”

While even the concept of driver-optional cars can sound mind-boggling, Brandes likes to consider the ways they will alter life as we know it, including fuel savings, insurance rate decreases and a significant reduction in accidents — a 90 percent drop is the current figure being mentioned.

“We have a whole segment of our economy based on cars running into each other … it’s going to be fascinating how that’s going to play out,” he said. “This idea of a driverless (car) is going to revolutionize our lives in ways that we can’t even fathom right now.”

But perhaps the greatest benefit, he said, doesn’t have to do with cameras, computers or sensors.

“We lose 2,500 Floridians every year to traffic accidents and thousands more are horribly injured,” he said. “The ability to save 90 percent of those lives simply by a technology upgrade in a vehicle is pretty amazing and how this is going to affect families over time is incredible.”

The Senate Transportation Committee will listen to presentations Thursday about the progress being made in the world of autonomous driving.

Audi had a healthy contingent of engineers, PR types and execs on hand for the driving demonstrations to explain the nuances of the technology. While Google seems to be getting all the media love for its quest for a completely driverless vehicle, and Tesla for being, well, cool, the Germans have been quietly plugging away at the concept for 10 years now. Their modus operandi is to make incremental improvements and add them to their existing vehicle line.

Some Audis are now equipped with sensors that send out a warning when a car is drifting out its lane, or automatically brake when it senses an obstacle. The next-generation A8 model — which should be in production in the next two or three years, according to principal engineer Marcial Hernandez — will feature Traffic Jam Pilot. The technology will allow the drivers to let go of the steering wheel and let the car’s sensors determine speed and braking in slow-moving traffic.

The prototype used in Tuesday’s test drives takes it a step further, with systems that can drive the car on the highway at higher speeds. Driver Martin Hempel still had to maneuver Jack (the concept cars are named for Kennedys) up to and onto the entrance ramp, but once on I-10, he had the option to keep driving, or, when a bar of LED lights lit across the dashboard, switch to the driverless mode. With lights and a woman’s soft voice, Jack gave him plenty of notice when the car was heading for the exit and he’d have to start driving again.

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