The Villages retirement community in Florida has a name that belies its proportions. The 40-square-mile area features 750 miles of road, three separate downtowns, and a population of 125,000 senior citizens—nearly double the population of Palo Alto, California. In 2013 and ’14, the US Census ranked it the fastest-growing American city.
It is within this gated city that US car startup Voyage has aptly chosen to pilot its door-to-door self-driving taxi service, the company announced last Wednesday (Jan. 10). The residents will be able to summon cars with the touch of an app, and the cars will operate at Level 4 autonomy—or full autonomy for all safety-critical driving functions—but still include a safety driver in case of emergency. Ahead of the launch, Voyage partnered with CARMERA, a provider of street-level intelligence for autonomous vehicles, to map out all 750 miles of The Villages’ roadways. CARMERA will also feed the cars real-time mapping updates to help with navigation.
Voyage couldn’t have picked a better testing ground for its vehicles—not just for the fact that The Villages provides a sprawling and dynamic space to accumulate miles. The gated community provides a controlled environment important for keeping the self-driving cars from running into any particularly crazy or rare scenarios. The community’s residents are also primary target users for autonomous travel, which has long been touted for its potential to increase the mobility of the elderly. For a booming senior citizen community, where the minimum age is 55, Voyage’s cars will offer more freedom to residents who cannot drive from limitations of old age.
Florida’s characteristically sunny weather will also be a boon for the pilot. Despite significant advancements in autonomous technology, self-driving cars still struggle to “see” through snow. Snowflakes can trip up the cameras and sensors that cars use to map their surroundings and cover the road markings that they rely on to navigate. In the Sunshine State, Voyage will have few weather-related reasons to interrupt their service year-round.
Voyage claims that this will be the world’s largest deployment by area size of self-driving cars in a real world environment. The pilot follows the company’s successful deployment of its autonomous cars in a much smaller 4,000-resident retirement community, also named The Villages, in San Jose, as well as a Series A venture capital round that the company says boosted its 2017 fundraising total to over $20 million.