Virginia doesn’t specifically regulate ‘self-driving’ cars. Should we?

Last week, when Virginia’s new Secretary of Transportation Shepard Miller publicly stated that flying cars it will be a reality for the next 50 years as a reason for leaders across the community to “reconsider transit”, perhaps some would scoff.

But just as flying cars have engulfed the fantasies of many Americans since the middle of the century, many today believe in another utopian technology full of elusive promises of improved safety and unbridled freedom: autonomous vehicles.

“Wild West”

As is often the case in the United States, the regulation of autonomous vehicles is largely left to the United States, leading to a mix of conflicting and confusing policies where some national approach must exist. Each country has the right to develop its own legal framework for emerging technology, but few have it – including our community.

“Virginia doesn’t have anything written exclusively for AVs yet, so it’s just the current code attached to the AVs,” said Amanda Hamm, a connected and automated vehicle program at the Virginia Department of Transportation. “Currently, AVs are mainly treated as human drivers. Any law applicable to a person driving a vehicle shall also apply to anyone driving that autonomous vehicle. “

Much of the AV’s regulation is left to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees federal motor vehicle safety standards. Countries that do not have their own legal framework simply apply the NHTSA position to everything from vehicle design to the range of their work.

So far, NHTSA has done little to prevent AV running red lights, turning to concrete barriersor even killing pedestrians; last month, however, the agency launched educational campaign to help consumers understand that systems like Tesla, called “autopilot” and “full self-driving”, don’t really mean what they say (and can kill you or others).

“When we talk about AVs, the metaphor of the Wild West keeps coming up because there are no federal regulations,” said Peter Norton, author of the book. Autonorama: The illusory promise of high-tech driving. “Many countries have rules to keep your hands on the wheel, which is frustrating for those technology companies that want to turn our roads into their laboratories.

‘Open for business’

All from Audi and Daimler to Federal Road Administration itself has conducted automation tests on Virginia roads in recent years. Although some of the tests have focused on the military use of the technology, much of the hope for AV lies in its potential commercial value.

“Platoon in the Lane” experiments could allow 18-wheeled convoys to work safer in tandem on highways. Cooperative Automation describes the idea that cars may one day be able to receive signals from beacons implanted in their surroundings, such as traffic lights or footpaths, to drive at optimum speed to avoid red traffic lights or to predict a pedestrian who crosses the road.

Although many of the expected safety improvements have not yet materialized, the promise of a potential breakthrough in AV has certainly attracted funding for research and development. Virginia Tech works independently two separate test beds – one in Northern Virginia, focused on “intelligent transport systems” and one in Blacksburg, studying the interaction of automation with the busy urban environment.

Tech highlights “26,000 hours of revolutionary research” done on it Smart roads because this is the main metric concern for corporations developing automation technologies, according to Norton. “There is pressure on these companies for their AVs to travel as many miles as possible, because every mile traveled is a chance for these vehicles to learn, as well as for companies to collect data. Every politician in the country wants to be business-friendly, and this creates this competition to allow the AV without a full legal process to resolve it safely. ”

The mentality that Norton sums up as “you can kill people here and we will still allow you to do so” is unfortunately not exaggerated in some parts of America. After the DMV of California hinted that it might not renew Uber’s permission to drive self-driving vehicles on public roads due to safety concerns, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey advertised his state as “open to business.” This came with fatal consequences for Elaine Herzbergthe Phoenix woman run over and kill from Uber AV in March 2018

Slow shuttle

Apart from the thousands of Teslas with autopilot activated on Virginia roads, the only AV currently operating in the corridors of the British Community is a nice-looking blue van. Fairfax County Electric shuttle relay seats no more than six (including safety stewards), can not move more than 10 miles per hour and travels only one mile on the route between Dunn Loring Underground Station and the Mosaic area – a luxury residential and commercial village.

The Relay pilot program was launched in October 2020. Due to the limitations of COVID-19, the shuttle has long been allowed to carry only two passengers at a time. With just two stops (Barnes & Noble and a metro station) and opening hours from 10 am to 2 pm from Monday to Thursday, it is easy to question the usefulness of the shuttle as an actual transport.

The misconception has always been that this pilot is for passengers, but we are really focused on technology and how the shuttle itself interacts with other vehicles on the road and pedestrians in the Mosaic area, “said John Zarbo, head of operations at Fairfax. Connector, the transportation agency that works with Relay.

So far, the shuttle has not caused any accidents and has interacted well with other vehicles and people on foot. ““One area where we had challenges that we did not expect was the vegetation along the corridor,” Zarbo added. “Everything is planned for this vehicle, but every month for a month and a half we have to intervene to prune trees and mow the grass back.”

County leaders have considered other shuttle routes around Reston or Franconia subway stations, but technology restrictions have so far banned a second shuttle coming online. Whether it’s fast highway traffic or a complex urban environment, people are much better at adapting their behavior to changing conditions. As impressive as AV technology is, there’s a reason the Relay shuttle requires a 10 mph speed limit and a safety steward behind the wheel.

While AVs remain a dream come true, people will also question the high cost of such rider shuttle programs. To run his one-mile operation for two years, Relay received a $ 416,000 grant from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Fairfax County has provided $ 104,000. Could the Virginians have been better served if that money had been invested elsewhere? Norton would argue yes.

“When we take public money to subsidize a private venture like this, it raises questions about our values ​​and what we are willing to finance,” he said. “Public money should go where it serves the public interest, given fairness and cost-effectiveness, and I don’t think this shuttle meets that standard. The real future is in much more cost-effective things like bike lanes and bus-only lanes. Xhow many good bus shelters can Fairfax County have for $ 520,000?