The dream of driverless cars has been around long before the technology could keep pace with our imaginations. Walt Disney envisioned a driverless world with his plans for the 1980s-era theme park, Epcot. The Jetsons were driving an autonomous (and flying) car on their cartoon series back in 1962. And the 1939 New York World’s Fair even included a GM pavilion introducing the concept of an autonomous car.
Today, those once sci-fi-esque visions are inching closer to reality—and some of the research, testing and real-life deployment is happening right here in Northern Virginia.
“The path to [fully deployed driverless cars] is many years away from a mass commercial adaption, but it’s also here today,” says David Woessner, executive vice president of corporate development and regulatory affairs for LM Industries, a San Francisco-based company that considers itself the world’s first digital vehicle manufacturer.
“We’re deployed in many markets, but we’re deployed in a variety of ways and not necessarily in a commercially scaled way,” says Woessner. LM Industries’ test markets include the Greater Washington region.
Last month, the company deployed its latest self-driving vehicle, Olli, at Fort Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington as part of the company’s global fleet challenge. Olli is a low-speed, electric, self-driving shuttle that’s being tested as an alternative means of more efficient mass transit. The military base competed for the chance to test the technology (other applicants included George Mason University, University of Maryland and local municipalities) and won because “it’s a private campus, it’s a highly controlled environment that gives a good-use case for this technology,” according to Woessner.
The plan is to run several Olli vehicles on the base throughout the summer, but ultimately use the technology to connect Fort Myer to public transit, running from the nearby Metro stations—Rosslyn and Arlington National Cemetery—and the Pentagon.
The Olli shuttle is also accessible to the public at National Harbor. The company opened a showroom at the Maryland tourist destination in 2016, and this summer it’s making 12 mph loops (it has a max speed of 25 mph) between the showroom on St. George Boulevard and Southepointe (by National Harbor’s Air Force One exhibit). Each Olli shuttle has a licensed operator on board in case of emergency.
With the showroom, Olli has a somewhat splashy presence in the region. But it’s certainly not the only company making inroads here. Optimus Ride, a Boston-based self-driving technology company with its origins at MIT, recently announced it would deploy three of its shuttles at Halley Rise in Reston. The shuttles will take residents of the new, mixed-use development between office buildings and parking lots on the private land.
Ford has been testing its fleet of self-driving, on-demand vehicles on the streets of DC. Audi, which recently moved its North American headquarters to Herndon, has been investing in research and development for self-driving cars. And Torc Robotics, a Blacksburg-based company, has self-driving shuttles and trucks in testing phases.
Perhaps even more importantly, a proclamation in 2015 by then Gov. Terry McAuliffe declared Virginia “open for business” for autonomous cars. With the guidance of Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute (VTTI), an industry-leading university research institute that studies safety, mobility and vehicle autonomy, among other issues, the state launched the Virginia Automated Corridors initiative that allows government agencies and private companies to test technology on 70 miles of roads in Virginia, including on interstates and artery roads in NoVA.
“From my perspective, it’s now gotten to the point where it’s much closer to becoming a reality,” says Tom Dingus, director of VTTI, which works with many entities to test and deploy autonomous vehicles. “There’s a lot of interest, a lot of investment.”
Why the push for a self-driving future? In addition to increased safety and freeing up productivity and leisure time lost to commuting (according to a VTTI study, in 2010, the average DC-area driver lost 67 hours to traffic delays, the worst congestion in the United States), the advantages stand to benefit senior citizens and others who can’t drive a standard vehicle, as well as provide more mass transit options.
But don’t put away your driving gloves just yet.
At a recent TedX talk, Dingus shared a timeline for seeing that World’s Fair prediction come to fruition.
“When is it really going to be perfect enough for you to watch a movie or take your eyes off the road? By 2035, even though you will have experienced a lot of this technology, whether it’s a robotic taxi in a city or highway driving … half the cars on the road will be substantially automated,” said Dingus. But, “To get to 90%, you’ve got to go out to 2049, so that’s really a long time from now, and I can’t emphasize this enough: If we don’t do it right, you can add five to 10 years to that.”
This post originally appeared in our July 2019 issue.