Imagine this: You’re going to a meeting, preparing an important presentation to clients that could make or break your fiscal quarter. The meeting is 45 minutes away by car.

Now imagine you can spend those 45 minutes reviewing your presentation, polishing your talking points and adding some pizzazz to those financial growth charts instead of having your hands, feet and mind completely preoccupied by the road.

This could be the not-so-distant future, according to SAE International.

The organization set up demonstration days at Babcock Ranch Wednesday, today and Friday to gather public feedback about autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars. The autonomous Range Rovers, provided by Perrone Robotics and their MAX software, are able to collect and analyze data around them to operate without a driver.

“There is an inherent discomfort with the unknown so we have partnered with industry and government to bring the public into the development phase, hear their feedback and share what we learn,” said SAE spokesperson Shawn Andreassi.

Participants were asked to sign a waiver for safety, and take a pre- and post-ride survey to help determine what sorts of standards and needs the public requires to get these cars on the road. The Sun%5Ep got to ride with three men from the Lee County area: Nick Arcella, Charles Hise and Arthur Houde. This was our experience.

Before the ride

“I’m a little apprehensive, probably due to my age,” said Hise, 78. He was wary of giving up complete control and putting his life in the wires and electric signals of the software.

“The population of 65-and-older is growing, making it imperative to provide opportunities for education and acceptance so this audience can benefit from the technology,” Andreassi said.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it tries to integrate with human drivers,” said Houde. But when humans are taken out of the equation, Houde thought it would be safer with all the cars “talking to each other.”

During the ride

Perrone Robotics engineer Garrett Moore programmed the specific route for the vehicle to follow in the neighborhood. In the driver’s seat, he said “ready for launch” into his walkie talkie, activated the car, and the steering wheel quickly jerked to the center. The engine slightly revved, pushing the car slowly forward, inching along a circular median and entering the main road like an overly cautious driving instructor.

“If at any point if you would want to change something, what would you do?” one of the riders asked. Moore kept his hands comfortably leaning on the center console, off the wheel, as he explained he could just simply take over the car with a push of a button.

Using Lidar, radar and ultra-sonic sensors, the software gives the car one governing “brain,” allowing it to receive data, make decisions and act on those decisions. The car’s software, along with a high-precision GPS attached to the roof, give the car an accuracy of 2 centimeters, or under an inch.

The route showed off the car’s ability to stop if a pedestrian crosses the street, to obey speed laws and interact with other vehicles.

“And they don’t get distracted,” said autonomous vehicle consultant Grayson Brulte. Whereas a human’s focus may be on the music playing, their GPS directions or a clever billboard they just passed by, the car has no emotion. Therefore, Brulte hopes these vehicles will allow people to focus on other things while the car does the driving.

After the ride

“Like anything else, it takes time to get used to,” Arcella said. “They do need to get the brakes smoother.” The vehicle stopped a little too abruptly for comfort at stop signs and intersections.

“It’ll be interesting to see how technology grows as I get into my older years,” Hise said. Instead of having to give up his keys, he can just call a car to take him where he pleases.

Brulte anticipates autonomous cars being readily available within the next five to 10 years, with Florida becoming a hot testing ground for the new technology.

Though there were a few kinks that needed to be ironed out, the men agreed when Hise said, “It’s not ready yet, but it’s close.”

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