Commonwealth of Virginia Welcomes Autonomous Cars on its Roads

They offer a glimpse of things to come in the near future, but to date, only four states in the U.S. allow autonomous vehicles to travel on their roads alongside everyday traffic: California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada.

Automaker and software companies are eagerly waiting to test their cars on Virginia's Automated Corridor

Automaker and software companies are eagerly waiting to test their cars on Virginia’s Automated Corridors

Each of those states have tough regulations detailing what autonomous vehicles can and can’t do, the type of supervision the vehicle must be under, and even how much financial insurance in the form of a bond automakers and software companies must post before their vehicles are issued the necessary autonomous vehicle license plates. And as commercial and research demand for autonomous vehicles becomes more common across the U.S., it goes without saying that more states will jump on the autonomous vehicle bandwagon.

The latest to do so is the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has just announced that 70 miles of highway in and around its northernmost reaches will permit the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles.

What makes it particularly interesting is that those 70 miles of roads include some of the most congested roads in the state, as well one of the nation’s most congested roads: a small section of 64-mile highway that forms Washington D.C’s infamous Capital Beltway — Interstate 495.

Those 70 miles of roads include some of the most congested roads in the state, as well one of the nation’s most congested roads: a small section of 64-mile highway that forms Washington D.C’s infamous Capital Beltway — Interstate 495

As the Richmond Times-Dispatch (via Popular Science) reported last week, the 70-miles of autonomous roads include a 50-mile corridor which spreads from Southbridge, VA up the I-95 to the Capital Beltway, up I-495 to I-66, west past Dulles International Airport and Centreville before leaving I-66 just before Gainesville and heading out down Virginia State Route 234 to link back up with Southbridge and I-95 again.  A smaller route, 20 miles in length, travels from Centerville along Virginia State Route 29 and 50 to Falls Church before looping back on itself along Virginia State Route 29.

Combined, these two routes will form what is being called the Virginia Automated Corridors, and any autonomous research vehicles being driven along them will be overseen by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

One route covers 50 miles and incorporates the infamous I-495

One route covers 50 miles and incorporates the infamous I-495

Before autonomous vehicles are allowed on Virginia’s Automated Corridors, they will first have to undertake an exhaustive evaluation at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road test track in Montgomery County and the Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County. Only vehicles deemed to have passed the rigorous selection procedure will be allowed to interact with human drivers on some of the country’s most congested roads.

“I think this is going to help us advance the technology and even more important, to attract companies and satellite offices in the Norther Virginia area to develop these new concepts,” said Myra Blanco, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Centre for Automated Vehicle Systems.

Unlike other states which allow automated vehicles to travel on the public highways, Blanco says Virginia’s approach makes it easier for companies to receive the necessary approval for testing.

The other, smaller route, incorporates smart road infrastructure.

The other, smaller route, incorporates smart road infrastructure.

“Other states are saying you need to improve that independently you can do all this testing,” she said. “What we are trying to do is show them how to do the testing and how to facilitate the process as well.”

At the moment, it’s not known which automakers will submit autonomous vehicles to the state of Virginia to be tested for use on the public highway, but Blanco said that she was confident that some autonomous cars will be using Virginia’s Automated Corridors within a year. With some of the70-miles of roads including smart roadways — which can communicate directly with autonomous vehicles to warn them of  changing traffic patterns, signal changes or oncoming emergency vehicles — the pilot project could even help pave the way for a future where the roads around the nation’s capital.

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