Driverless cars: Call Christina team gives you ride into future

Meridian Shuttle on display at MOSI in Tampa

The nation's first driverless vehicle open to the public is on display until at least early-September at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa.
The nation's first driverless vehicle open to the public is on display until at least early-September at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa.

TAMPA, Fla. – The nation's first driverless vehicle open to the public is on display until at least early-September at the Museum of Science & Industry in Tampa.

"(It's the) only public venue that allows interaction with a driverless car," MOSI Director of Exhibits Johnny Scotello said. "So in other places you may go and see one on display, but here at MOSI you get in (and) you go for a ride."

WED EXTRA: MOSI Director of Exhibits Johnny Scotello on driverless car

Scotello said the driverless and electric Meridian Shuttle on display is a prototype. "There are four in the world and we have one of them," he said.

The Meridian Shuttle, with its golf cart look, is a far cry from the images of self-driving cars that have captured our imagination over the decades.

"I think the driverless vehicle experience is pleasantly underwhelming," Scotello said. "You come in with a certain sense of fear and you come out with a really satisfying sense of calm and relaxation."

It is on that ride that you learn about the interesting technology that makes it work.

It is "built on a platform with two engines, two batteries and four LIDAR systems. LIDAR is laser radar so it shoots 30 beams per second out of any of those four radars. It's continually localizing or figuring out where it is in relationship to what it knows could be there. And if there's any variation within three meters it slows down, within six meters it comes to a complete stop and it is accurate within two centimeters," Scotello said. "All of them come with emergency stops, and we've never had to hit it. The car is statistically safer than a person driving.  They are much safer -- a thousand times safer than a person driving, according to statistics."

MOSI staff said that while the shuttle goes up to 25 mph, it has been programmed to have a top speed at the museum of 4 mph.

Its design may not be daring, and it may not go very fast, but it is a first in that is allowing the public to experience the technology.

Scotello said pragmatic applications of the autonomous shuttle include university campuses and theme parks. The company also envisions it could be utilized at airports, resort centers, hospitals and industrial sites.

"It's significant because it's a really good discussion about the future of technology and vehicles and the automobile market," Scotello said.

Since the 1950's, Americans have been enthralled with the idea of driverless cars.

We have imagined all the things we could do with a computer manning the wheel -- play cards, read a book or just take a nap. 

Now that dream is getting closer to reality with companies like Google, Ford, Audi, and Mercedes working to bring the self-driving car to the market.

WEB EXTRA: "Your safety first."

WEB EXTRA: "Key to the future."

Autonomous concept cars, like the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury In Motion research vehicle and Audi's RS 7 piloted driving concept, are very cool. The design is modern, sleek, and sexy.

WEB EXTRA: Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in motion

WEB EXTRA: Audi RS 7 piloted driving concept at Hockenheim

But one small French technology company beat the rest by offering a driverless car for sale.  $250,000 is the estimated cost of a Meridian Shuttle.  The company's website boasts that it is 100 percent driverless and 100 percent electric.

WEB EXTRA: Induct technology and Navya technology

The car maneuvers with a whisper-quiet electric motor and laser-based LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors. This is how it can "see" where it is and detect obstacles. If it senses an obstacle in the way, it comes to a stop.

Scotello said there are three computers that have to sync and "each password is protected and they are connected in a mini network that is completely sealed. That makes it really difficult to hack." He said a hacker would have to get through three computers and about six different passwords, "So it is fairly stable and a lot more secure than your bank account."

As for the company behind the Meridian shuttle, "They are moving this technology to Tampa and the Florida area because it was the best possible place for a tourist industry related shuttle," Scotello said. "So they are moving operations and manufacturing sales to Tampa and right now MOSI as their partner is the exclusive place where someone can see it. MOSI is moving towards that model of harboring future technology that is pre-consumer."

The MOSI Meridian Shuttle is part of an exhibit that includes drones and code robots.

"This is world-changing technology and it makes sense for it to debut at MOSI, our community's resource for science and technology," Molly Demeulenaere, president and CEO of MOSI said. "By making these new and developing technologies accessible to everyone, MOSI gives its visitors a sneak peek into their not-so-distant future and inspires our next generation of scientists, engineers and inventors to see that anything is possible."

Tampa is already home to driverless test tracks along the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, just one of a handful of places in America certified for driverless car testing.

Last summer Audi tested its "Traffic Jam Pilot."

WEB EXTRA: Audi shows piloted driving with Florida demonstration.

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