Virginia Tech Makes History with Self Driving Cars on DC Expressway
Virginia Tech's automated cars made history driving in one of the nation's most congested areas. Cars designed by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute drove on a special section of Interstate 395 in Northern Virginia for the first time, a huge step for the program which previously had only tested on closed test tracks.
The "fully automated" and the "connected" cars look like regular SUVs on the outside, but the computers in the trunk make them unlike anything ever driven on our roads before. Tests took place on the express lanes outside Washington D.C. during a normal time when they're closed to the public. They represent big opportunities for Virginia Tech and Southwest Virginia.
"This technology, as (Senator Warner) said, is game changing and disruptive in a positive way," U.S. Department of Transportation Research and Technology Assistant Secretary Greg Winfree said.
State and federal lawmakers including Winfree, Virginia Senator Mark Warner, and Virginia Tech President Timothy Sands let the computers take them for a spin Monday on one of the nation's busiest roadways. The express lanes were closed to regular traffic as they normally are that time of day, but the road conditions were real, and researchers also added real-life situations like motorcycles, construction zones, and emergency vehicles on the side of the road.
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute lead the initiative in partnership with a variety of other firms including Transurban, which manages technology on the express lanes. The roads are part of Virginia's Automated Corridors covering more than 70 miles of highways and interstates in one of the nation's most congested areas.
"Over the last 15 years, there's been more experimentation and testing done down there (Blacksburg) and over in Danville at VIR than almost any place else in the country, in the world," Warner said.
The tests and the vehicles themselves are the culmination of engineer's and researcher's hard work at Virginia Tech. The cars can steer, accelerate, brake and control themselves but still require a person in the driver's seat. According to VTTI, there are five levels of automation, and the tests are done at Level 3, the last level before the system is in control.
But the work is far from over, and both Sands and Warner want Virginia to be the epicenter of the industry. That outcome would bring many opportunities to Southwest Virginia, and the chance to recruit a brand new breed of people.
"Possibly altering and developing our academic programs so our undergraduates and our graduates can, for example, have a degree in electrical engineering or a degree in psychology, but major in autonomous systems," Sands said.
Senator Warner enjoyed his ride and was very eager to talk about the opportunities this technology could bring to the commonwealth. He said that at this point, he trusted the computers more than himself at the wheel driving around his family. Warner compared this research to developments made at the dawn of the wireless and cell phone revolution.
Not everyone is behind driver-less cars, but unlike a cell phone where people can choose to use one or not use one, the cars may someday share the same roads as regular cars whether they like it or not. Warner said people may come eventually come around after seeing the results.
"It could be the same argument that people who are originally against seat belts and airbags, but at the end of the day, the data show the increased safety," Warner said.
When exactly these cars will be in your hands is still uncertain. A varying level of automated driving is already available on the consumer market with automated park assist and rear view cameras. Warner said he's heard anywhere from three to 30 years.
But no matter what the timeline, the continued research and technology advancement will put Virginia Tech in the spotlight and may lead to good things in our area.
"I think you'll see Virginia Tech become a destination for researchers, and for students who want to work in this broader area of autonomous systems," Sands said. "It will have an affect on our culture, our economy, Southwest Virginia has lost a lot of industries over the last 30-40 years and we see autonomous systems becoming a major new industry for Southwest Virginia.
This article originally appeared on WBDJ Channel 7.