Although flying cars still remain a good while away, self-driving cars have begun their slow and steady immersion into the world at large. Test runs in major cities have increased over the last few years, with San Francisco becoming the most populated state in the country to host autonomous car testing. Recently, New York City—named one of the most congested cities in the world—has thrown its hat in the ring; General Motors announced that it would be the first company to test out self-driving cars in the city that never sleeps. Of the 14 states that have laws regulating autonomous car tests, New York is one of the more rigorous, with plenty of supervision and oversight, while other states prefer a more relaxed approach.
Alternative Testing Areas
These metropolitan hubs are a logical entry point for the burgeoning technology. They are densely populated, impacted by plenty of transportation issues in desperate need of remedy, and they are where cab companies have managed to thrive for such a long time. Yet the best testing ground may not be the typical bustling cityscape, but something far on the other end of the spectrum: retirement communities.
While many think of the retirement communities as minimal in their hunger for innovation, the reality is that the elderly often benefit most from advances in intuitive technology. Nowhere has this proven more true than in The Villages, a retirement community in Florida that features three separate downtown strips and over 125,000 senior citizens. To put the number into context, that is nearly double the entire population of Palo Alto, California, ground zero for the tech boom. According to the 2013 and 2014 United States Census, the gated community is ranked as the fastest-growing American city.
All of these efforts prove that it is entirely unsurprising that major companies are beginning to look elsewhere to test some of their newest innovations, and American automobile startup Voyage is leading the way. The company announced that it has chosen this gated retirement community to test out its door-to-door self-driving taxi service. Voyage’s taxis operate at Level 4 autonomy, meaning that all auto-piloted driving features and safety precautions are fully activated, yet the car may host a safety driver in case of emergency.
Gated communities like The Village provide a large test site for automated cars to make their rounds, providing a controlled and contained environment in which the cars can perfect regular, routine rides in lieu of test scenarios. Mastering the sprawling site also helps the team track the miles and perfect the system before sending them onto freeways. And these senior retirement homes aren’t exclusively for the disabled or degenerating. At The Village, the minimum age is 55, meaning that while limitations like age and impaired vision may prevent them from driving themselves, many in the community would welcome the opportunity to be more mobile.
In the lead-up to Voyage’s launch, the company partnered with CARMERA, an organization which provides up hyper-detailed and up-to-the-minute street intelligence for autonomous vehicles. The system has mapped out all 750 miles (seriously) of The Village’s roadways, with real-time mapping updates to help navigate around traffic or construction (which the budding community is sure to see a bit of). And Florida itself is a perfect space for CARMERA and Voyage’s collaboration, as many of these early autonomous vehicles have a hard time seeing through snow, a more blinding element than even heavy rainfall. Florida’s sunny environment means that the sensors will have an easier time mapping out their surrounding areas, and detecting delineations and markings along the road.
Voyage’s plan as of now is to focus on The Village as an important breeding ground, which would make it the largest autonomous car deployment by area size of anywhere in the world. Companies like Google have invested more than $1 billion into the development of autonomous vehicles. With numbers like that, it’s even more notable that Voyage has managed such a significant deployment with a number significantly smaller than that. A series of venture capital rounds recently boosted the fundraising total to over $20 million — not bad for a company still getting its training wheels off. But the key is that Voyage is testing the waters by entering what many consider an oft-forgotten demographic. As retirement communities change, turning Boca Vista into Silicon Valley might go from sounding ridiculous to sounding something like the future.