Sure, Back to the Future II made us think we would all have flying cars by now. But while all of our automobiles are still very much on the ground, the auto industry is making strides towards the next big innovation. Now that electric cars are about to boom onto the market, industry leaders are looking toward bringing driverless cars to the road. And it turns out you might have already seen one riding around NoVA.
The on-ramp: electric cars. Don’t look now, but your gas-guzzling, carbon-monoxide-spewing beast of burden will soon be a footnote in the automobile history books. Combustion engines? Gone. You as driver? Gone. Demonstration projects of fully autonomous vehicles are ramping up in Virginia, and electric cars are the first step. According to BloombergNEF’s Electric Vehicle Outlook, electric vehicle sales are expected to overtake combustion engine sales by 2035, when the upfront cost of electric vehicles should become about the same as conventional vehicles.
The Northern Virginia proof of concept. The Relay shuttle van, a truly autonomous electric 12-passenger shuttle with a top speed of 12 mph, is the first publicly funded autonomous electric shuttle—and the first test of driverless technology in public transportation in Virginia. It’s being demonstrated by transporting people from the Dunn Loring Metro station in Merrifield to the nearby Mosaic shopping district. “This really could be a game changer for people who either don’t or can’t drive, or who can’t use micro-mobility like bikes and scooters,” says Eta Nahapetian, manager of Smart Community Innovation and Strategy with the Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives.
It all started with cruise control. The first true automatic driver-assistance device, cruise control, invented by blind mechanical engineer Ralph Teetor and named the “Speedostat,” was added to Chrysler cars in 1958. Now, there are more automatic capabilities available in cars than ever. A dozen different models of vehicles can parallel-park themselves with the push of a button, and more than 30 cars offer various forms of automatic driver assistance, such as keeping the car centered in its lane by reading lane markings. Domino’s is testing its own driverless delivery truck, the Nuro, in Houston right now.
It isn’t as easy as just careering onto your nearest highway. There are serious regulatory challenges to deal with. “We have to get approval from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because they regulate these vehicles,” says Nahapetian. “They have an independent video feed from the Relay vehicle to see what is going on.” The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and Regional Transportation Research Council is doing its own independent report and has its own camera onboard to get data.
Letting go. Engineers and researchers are examining different levels of control for vehicles, according to Mollenhauer, each with less involvement by the human driver. For example, in Level 3, there will be some time before the vehicle decides to get the driver involved, such as when it approaches a roadway environment it can’t understand. “But the driver has to be ready,” Mollenhauer says. “They can’t be asleep or intoxicated to the point that it would take them too long to reorient themselves.” Level 4 is where the vehicle can handle everything in its design domain, like certain weather conditions. Mollenhauer’s group is already building its own Level 4 vehicle and plans to demo it next summer.
Autono-mess? The grand plan of driverless cars and trucks and whatever else rides the roadways requires buy-in by regulatory entities, safety overseers, states, and others. And that’s just the start. Making sure the vehicle knows what it’s seeing on the highway—especially how to navigate work zones and deal with road obstacles—continues to be one of the head-scratching problems engineers need to solve. The ultimate goal? Making an autonomous car behave as if a human is still driving it.
Should the cars be able to “cheat”? Human drivers “fudge the laws,” says Mollenhauer. “So should an automated vehicle be able to break the speed limit? I don’t know. If you don’t let them do that, they will impede the flow of traffic and may cause road rage issues. That is an eye-opener.”
Here’s the rub: you. Ready to give up your driving freedom for a GPS-controlled, monitored ride, no speeding allowed? Maybe not, right? “I think once people get a level of confidence with automation-system capabilities, it doesn’t take long for individuals to engage in alternative tasks, like reading a magazine or watching videos or sleeping,” says Mollenhauer. “Unfortunately, humans are terrible monitors of relatively capable technology. We have to be very careful about that moving forward.”