Virginia as Fast Adopter of Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Mark Riccobono, blind since childhood, navigated an SUV through a race course in 2011. Image credit: Virginia Tech

Virginia may not have Silicon Valley, and it may not be a center of the automobile industry, but the Old Dominion is in the thick of the self-driving automobile revolution. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, with a staff of 500, has established itself as a national-level player in research. Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics develops self-driving technologies used in mining trucks and military vehicles. The University of Virginia is studying how passengers react to self-driving cars. Perrone Robotics, based a few miles away in Crozet, has developed a proprietary software platform for running autonomous vehicles. The Commonwealth Transportation Board has moved to allow testing on express lanes on Northern Virginia. Virginia even has a trade association, the Unmanned Systems Association, to promote autonomous vehicles and drones. Virginia Business magazine has the story here.

Suffice it to say that, despite a highly publicized accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which a self-driving Uber test car killed a pedestrian, self-driving cars are coming. There is too much money behind the industry and the potential safety gains are too enormous for any one fatality, or even a series of fatalities, to turn back the tide.

While Virginia likely will never become more than a niche player in the manufacture and development of self-driving cars and technologies, the Commonwealth has much to gain from making itself hospitable to autonomous vehicles. Just consider these figures from the Virginia Highway Safety Office:

2017 Virginia Vehicle Incidents
Crashes: 127,375
Injuries: 65,306
Fatalities: 843

After many years of improvement, those trends turned markedly worse in 2015, 2016 and 2017 — most likely due to the increase in distracted driving associated with cell phones. Too many drivers are morons. Safe, self-driving cars can’t come too soon.

Integrating self-driving cars into state laws, the tort system, and the motorist culture won’t be smooth. Inevitably, some motorists will try to exploit the driving patterns of self-driving cars. Inevitably, there will be accidents. Inevitably, some self-driving cars will be found to be at fault. But there can be little doubt that over the long-run, autonomous vehicles can be programmed and perfected to drive much more safely than humans. Further, as the Virginia Business article alludes to, autonomous vehicles will provide mobility for the aged, the blind, and the handicapped. Speaking personally, I’m looking forward to the introduction of fully autonomous cars just around the time I turn 80.

The sooner we begin dealing with these issues, the sooner we can reap the benefits. We have so much to learn. Are traffic laws designed for humans appropriate for computer-driven vehicles? How do we apportion blame when human and self-driving vehicles collide? What impact will robotic cars and artificial intelligence have on commuting patterns? How much will car ownership decline as big corporations begin providing Transportation as a Service? How much will the demand for parking garages and on-street parking shrink when people hail rides instead of drive their own cars? Will people drive less or more when they can wile away long-distance commutes reading, emailing, watching TV or surfing the Web?

The sooner we can get answers to these questions, the sooner we can begin pushing down the number of accidents, injuries and fatalities on our streets and roads. The sooner we can revamping our transportation policies and stop squandering billions on highway and mass transit projects that may (or may not) be obsolete a decade from now. The sooner we can adjust our land use practices. The sooner we can devise 21st-century solutions to the insufferable traffic congestion in much of the state.

That’s why it’s a good thing for Virginia to be an early mover. It would be cool if the next great autonomous-vehicle company sprang from Virginia soil, but let’s be honest — that’s a long shot. The real reason is become fast adopters of the technology is simply to better our lives.

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5 responses to “Virginia as Fast Adopter of Autonomous Vehicle Technology

  1. “The Russians are coming, tra la, tra la . . . .” Jonathan Winter’s insane chant comes to mind. Yes, self driving cars are coming, and they don’t scare me; after all, the statistics on the risk of accidents from keeping guns in the home are far worse, but that doesn’t bother the GA or the NRA. But will it prove easy to look the driver of that oncoming vehicle in the eye and realize there is no driver — or he’s watching a movie on the dashboard? That is a task I’ll happily leave to my children.

  2. Hmmm, Jimbo. I see this spreading most rapidly in the commercial world. There go a few hundred thousand more jobs with decent wages that require only training and a CDL, but certainly no level of degree. Uber and Lyft will go autonomous in many places. But the people who operate and maintain these fleets and the networks behind them will need some level of higher education, won’t they? I see a bit of a conflict with the discussion we just finished below…

  3. Who said Virginia Tech was too far out in the two leagues to do real University work? Can anyone imagine how expensive test tracks for cars for autonomous cars would be up in Northern Virginia?

    • You crack me up. Can anyone imagine how expensive test tracks for autonomous cars would be in Silicon Valley … where the work is actually happening?

      Technological concentration is driven by one factor … the presence of talented and educated people at scale. If you think things are expensive in Reston go to Palo Alto.

      If you want to do something interesting … look at the venture capital per capita chart in the article at the end of my link. Why do Jacksonville, Madison, Greensboro and New Haven make the top 20? What is it about these small cities that attracts so much venture capital relative to their size? Why aren’t Richmond, Roanoke or Virginia Beach on the list?

      https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/01/global-startup-cities-venture-capital/429255/

  4. The first time you get into an autonomous car Jim … I’ll be waiting. Not me per se but the computer virus I wrote and used to infect your autonomous vehicle. Will I do you any bodily harm? Of course not. However, your autonomous car will pull into every strip mall it passes and slowly cruise the above ground parking lot. It will divert up to 10 miles if there is a professional sports stadium built with taxpayer funds and it will circle that stadium twice. It will slow down when it goes by any medical facility that takes Medicaid so you can get a good look at the people receiving money from Virginia’s Medicaid expansion program. I’ll guess it will take about 30 days before you give up on your autonomous car and just stay home drinking bourbon and branch water on your front porch.

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