Tech's self-driving car makes first public road test

Originally published by the Collegiate Times as News. 
Published in print edition, front page, Friday, Oct. 30, 2015. 

From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 19 and Tuesday, Oct. 20, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) held the first road demonstrations for two automated and connected cars.

Photo courtesy of Logan Wallace
The two Cadillac SRXs were tested on 10 miles of the Interstate 95 expresslane and Interstate 395 HOV lane in Fairfax County, Virginia and did not disrupt traffic. The cars have previously only been driven on the Smart Road in Blacksburg, Va., comprised of 2.2 miles of controlled-access track.

“[The demonstration] went great; we’ve had nothing but positive feedback,” said Mindy Buchanan-King, research communication director at VTTI. “They really saw live and firsthand that this is what we can do.”

Automated and connected technologies can communicate with other vehicles, but automated does not require driver input, sensing and responding to surrounding vehicles automatically.

Both the Google self-driving car and VTTI’s automated vehicle rank level three “limited self-driving automation,” according to the USDOT. Level three of four qualifications include ability to cede full control, certain conditions requiring driver intervention.

Virginia law requires a driver behind the wheel: Zach Doerzaph, director at the Center for Advanced Automotive Research, drove the connected vehicle, and Luke Neurautor, group leader, drove the automated vehicle.

"I think what VTTI is doing really places Virginia at the forefront of automated vehicles for a couple of reasons,” said Catherine McGhee, associate director for safety, operations and traffic engineering for VDOT’s research division. “One, is that it's an outstanding organization with a great group of researchers doing really important work.”

Virginia Automated Corridors (VAC), a partnership between VTTI, VDOT, VDMV, Transurban, which operates the expresslane, and HERE, Nokia’s mapping system, conducted the demonstration. The VAC is comprised of more than 70 miles of interstates and arterials in northern Virginia, including the tested roads and smartroad.

"I think it went wonderfully,” McGhee said. “I think it brought a lot of attention to the work we're doing in Virginia, and it really emphasized the point that we are encouraging the private sector to come here and to work on developing these technologies and applications that will lead to enhanced mobility.”

The cars performed successfully in all six scenarios, including an active work zone and a police and emergency vehicle on the shoulder, an emergency vehicle coming from behind, lane drift with a blind spot warning, emergency brake light and forward collision warning and a response to an un-interpretable event (i.e. crash scene).

Photo courtesy of Logan Wallace
Sen. Mark Warner and Greg Winfree, assistant secretary for research and technology at USDOT spoke Monday. Representing Virginia was Charles Kilpatrick, commissioner for VDOT, Richard Holcomb, commissioner for VDMV and Karen Jackson, secretary of technology for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Dingus spoke Tuesday.

Timothy Sands, Virginia Tech president, and Tom Dingus, director for VTTI, represented Virginia Tech.

Progress continues with caution and uncertainty: legislators and researchers acknowledge not everyone wants to be a backseat driver.

“The United States has always had a love affair with their cars, and so I wonder, sometimes, whether we'll ever see 100 percent market penetration of automated vehicles, just because there are people who enjoy the task of driving,” McGhee said. "Without a doubt, the increase of driver-assisted technology in vehicles is where we're headed; I have no doubts about that at all.”

According to the USDOT, connected vehicle safety has potential to address 81 percent of all-vehicle target crashes, 83 percent of all light-vehicle target crashes and 72 percent of all heavy-truck target crashes annually.

"Our engineers are always thinking, they always want to try something new,” Buchanan-King said. “It certainly wasn't a matter of, 'Oh, we're done, now we can take a break.' If anything, it was 'We're done, we have such great interest that this isn't going to stop.'”

Official VTTI design on connected vehicles began in 2013 and on automated vehicles in 2014.

"I'm really glad to be a part of VTTI and really glad to work with a really good talent of engineers,” said Jean Paul Talledo Vilela, the embedded hardware team leader at the Center for Technology Development at VTTI. “We love what we do and we also put passion in it, so we always try to make our development the best.”

With more than a decade of experience in automated vehicles, VTTI has worked with state and federal government and vehicle manufacturers and suppliers for development and testing. VTTI is focused on research and understanding human-machine interaction.

"I'm always fascinated about what tangible work we really do,” Buchanan-King said. “You know you've done well, everybody on the team did a good job, but you don't really see the results in some instance, but working at VTTI, you see tangible results.”

Safety is the main goal, with additional benefits including improved mobility for teen and elderly drivers and reduction of negative environmental impacts and traffic congestion.

"There are still a lot of outstanding questions in terms of how this all becomes operational and what it means to the insurance industry and what it means to an agency like VDOT that manages traffic and how liability issues are addressed,” McGhee said. “I think it was a really good demonstration of the potential of this technology.”

Since 2001, VTTI has paid out of pocket more than $30 million in overall connected-vehicle research and development.

VTTI is working to improve motors, working to prevent lane drift and quicken manual disabling of automatic control. A goal is to increase the car to a level four “self-driving automation.”

"We have a tremendous group of engineers and researchers at VTTI, and without them, none of this would really be possible,” Buchanan-King said. “They've worked countless hours night and day to make the demo a success.”

The demonstration, its success and reception symbolize a step towards the future.

"To be honest, we were nervous,” Talledo Vilela said. “To make the car more autonomous, we need to put more sensors and also more logic and more control systems running in the car to allow us to reach that goal — I’m not saying it's impossible, but it can take us all some time to get there.”

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