Fairfax County: Test Track for the Future of Connected and Driverless Cars

Legend has it that Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Connected and driverless cars are the next innovation in transportation, and they’ll be more revolutionary than Ford’s Model T that overturned the horse and buggy.

Because this technology will be on the roads sooner than most people think, we recently brought together top researchers, entrepreneurs, policy makers and others to discuss the latest research, showcase the technology and consider implications for the future.

“Unlike California and many other states, Virginia hasn’t put up any regulatory roadblocks for connected and self-driving cars,” said Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust who chairs the county’s Economic Advisory Commission. “This means we have an open road to allow this technology to advance, including in Fairfax County where’s its being road tested today.”

As Virginia aims to become the capital for automated cars, Fairfax County is positioning itself as the state’s hub for this technology.

“We see Fairfax County as a huge opportunity for rolling out the technology and watching as it grows,” said John Estrada, CEO for eTrans Systems, whose Mossaic-based firm supplies software for connected and autonomous vehicles.

This technology could deliver a significant economic impact, upwards of $1 trillion say some studies. In our efforts to grow and diversify the economy , county leaders want to stimulate innovation and technology whether it’s driverless cars, biotech, data analytics or other emerging industries.


Fairfax County is Where Real Word Road Testing Happens

While you may not see a driverless car on our roads, what you may not realize is that this technology is being road tested our highways now.

“We’re actually doing lots of testing right here in Fairfax County at the connected and automated corridors,” said Cathy McGhee who directs the Virginia Transportation Research Council.

VTRC is an important player in the field since they lead research efforts for the Virginia Department of Transportation. The council also works in partnership with Virginia Tech.

There are more than 70 miles of smart roads in Fairfax County. The sensors installed along I-66, 495, 95 and Routes 29 and 50 form what’s called the connected and automated corridor.

“It is one of the most heavily instrumented highways in the whole, entire world,” said Reg Viray a researcher with Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute.

This connected technology allows specially equipped cars to talk to the roads, and the infrastructure to communicate back to the cars.

automated corridor map

Fairfax County is perfect for road testing the technology in real world conditions, said both McGhee and Viray. The connected cars face congestion and emergency vehicles on a daily basis.


Connected Versus Automated Vehicles

There’s a difference between connected and automated technology, experts say.

Automated systems, like adaptive cruise control or collision avoidance, can be found in many cars today. Connected technology allows cars to talk to other cars and the infrastructure, primarily by short range radio. It anonymously broadcasts a car’s location, direction and speed ten times a second.

“When we move to the automated world, everyone’s mind jumps immediately to the driverless vehicle,” said VTRC’s McGhee. “But I think it’s important, especially today, to talk about the fact that there are lots of steps in between a completely driver-centric vehicle and that driverless vehicle.”

As established by the Society for Automotive Engineers, there are five levels of automation:

Level 1: Driver Assistance —A human driver is in control, but systems like adaptive cruise control can sometimes offer assistance. This is the kind of technology that’s already available in many cars today.

Level 2: Partial Automation —One or more automated systems controls speed and steering while a human driver controls all other tasks. As an example, some have described Tesla’s autopilot system as level 2 automation.

Level 3: Conditional Automation — An automated system can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task and monitor the driving environment in some instances, but the human driver must be ready to take back control when the automated system requests

Level 4: High Automation —An automated system controls the driving, and a human driver doesn’t need to take control. However, the automated system can only operate in certain conditions and environments.

Level 5: Full Automation —No human driver is needed. An automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.


Faster, Safer Travel in the Future?

Some experts say that a connected technology combined with automation is the best path forward.

Instead of relying only on a car’s own sensors, connected technology can offer a broad picture of what’s happen with surrounding cars and roads.

For example, the technology can broadcast traffic signal status. They can warn drivers in advance to slow down because a light ahead is about to turn red.

“Or even better, we can tell them if they maintain a speed of 35 miles per hour they’ll stay in the green band and that just means they won’t stop at a red light,” said McGhee. “They get greens all the way down the arterial.”

Automated technology could also allow cars to drive more smoothly and more closely together.

Once every car on the road is automated, we can theoretically cut the space between them by 50 percent and increase highway capacity by almost 100 percent, said Dwight Farmer, who formerly oversaw planning and transportation for Hampton Roads.

“It’s not how fast you can go,” said Farmer explaining the benefits. “It’s how often you don’t go slow.”

However, the technology could also easily increase travel speeds by 20 percent, he added.

Automated vehicles will also make the roads safer.

“We are very confident that at full use it will reduce accidents, injuries and fatalities,” said Famer. “We are still losing 35 to 40,000 people a year just in the U.S. through fatalities due to roadway crashes.”


How Can You Help Advance an Automated Future?

You can be part of the research that’s advancing the technology. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute maintains a list of volunteers to contact when recruiting for various transportation studies.

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