The future of self-driving cars is at… Disney World?

Published on April 21, 2017 | Written by Emma Hinchliffe

When Walt Disney started building what would become Epcot, he envisioned the city of tomorrow.

Orlando has taken that founding principle quite seriously. The city is launching an ambitious plan to embrace the future of autonomous vehicles — in part by testing them at Disney World and Universal Studios.

“We are trying to push the edge in terms of innovation and technology,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. “The advantages in Central Florida are our 66 million visitors. Trying to have people be aware of advances in technology — Orlando is a very good place to have people learn about your product.”

And what better location to learn about our brave new world than the Happiest Place on Earth?

Orlando officials envision a city where self-driving buses drive tourists from their hotels to theme parks, where visitors can become familiar with autonomous technology through a display at Epcot’s pavilion, where the thousands of rental cars visitors use each year are self-driving, and where even Disney World’s Monorail gets an autonomous upgrade.

The Monorail at Disney World.
The Monorail at Disney World.


Orlando’s plan through the Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership looks similar to other 10- and 20-year proposals cities come up with to design the future of transportation and urban planning. Along with autonomous technology, the city is hoping to adopt electronic vehicles and alternative fuel sources.

And Orlando, with its millions of tourists renting cars and taking public transit every day, has a unique opportunity to make these high-level plans reality.

The city’s planners are envisioning a future where Orlando visitors elect to test self-driving technology from a rental car company just like they’d book a hotel. Tourists from all over the country and the world could experience new means of transportation at Disney World through the technology displays the tech firm Siemens started sponsoring there in 2005.

Orlando, with its millions of tourists renting cars and taking public transit every day, has a unique opportunity to make these high-level plans reality.

These plans are building on more than just Walt Disney’s legacy. Disney famously bought land around Orlando to build Epcot, short for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. He died before enacting his vision for central Florida, and Epcot and its mini versions of 11 countries became a small part of Disney World.

But in the 1990s, Orlando also served as the testing ground for in-vehicle navigation, just like Pittsburgh is now testing Uber’s self-driving cars. Twenty years later, with in-vehicle navigation in nearly every new car, Orlando wants to get in on the next wave of transportation innovation.

“Epcot was envisioned by Walt Disney as the smart city,” said Charles Ramdatt, a longtime City of Orlando staffer who worked on the 1990s navigation initiative and is now leading the push for more automated vehicle technology. “It’s engaged to be a showcase, to showcase these technologies to the rest of the world.”

Right now, these plans are high-level. The Central Florida Automated Vehicle Partnership was named one of 10 autonomous vehicle proving grounds by the Department of Transportation in January, along with efforts in Pittsburgh, San Diego, Iowa City, Texas, and North Carolina. Florida’s partnership is also hoping to secure federal funding. Orlando officials declined to comment on how much its plans would cost or how much funding the city is seeking.

Central Florida's SunTrax testing track.
Central Florida’s SunTrax testing track.


If all goes as planned, the city would test transportation technology in partnership with the University of Central Florida, Florida Polytechnic University, and the Florida A&M University-Florida State University College of Engineering. Those engineers would test autonomous vehicle technology at SunTrax, a 400-acre facility and track between Orlando and Tampa, and at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, using its roadway network. Next up, the plan would deploy autonomous vehicles on the major highways I-4, SR 540 and SR 528 and through downtown’s Orlando’s bus system, rail system, regional transportation, and bike share.

“Imagining the world of autonomous vehicles, what does that mean for everything else?” said Rahul Razdan, a professor of computer science at Florida Polytechnic who studies testing processes for automated vehicles and helps lead the university’s role in Florida’s transportation innovation. “How should tolling work? How could you reorient the physical infrastructure and lifestyles in such a way to take advantage of the fundamental capability that now becomes available?”

Missing from these plans are the parties most people mention when they think self-driving cars: Uber, Lyft, Google, and the rest of the private sector. While Orlando and its partners hope to engage the private sector eventually, none of those companies are signed on right now.

Even the theme parks aren’t officially listed as partners in Orlando’s proposal, although the city has plans to include all the major names.

Will Orlando succeed where some of the biggest names in tech have made a few missteps?

Book a vacation package in 2020 (?) to find out.


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