Building an “Unmanned” Industry Cluster

Virginia Tech's smart road simulates a wide variety of driving conditions.
Virginia Tech’s smart road simulates a wide variety of driving conditions.

by James A. Bacon

Two decades ago the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) had two sponsors, fifteen employees and a dream of becoming a major player in testing new automotive technologies. Sixteen years ago, it opened a literal road to nowhere — a 2.2-mile “smart road” cutting through the hills of Montgomery County that ended in a dead-end loop.

Today, according to John Ramsey writing in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, VTTI has 75 sponsors and 475 employees. The institute has helped attract $300 million in research funding to the state. VTTI is by most measures the largest transportation institute in the country.

The McAuliffe administration is hoping to turn that into a magnet for attracting autonomous-related corporate investment to Virginia. The autonomous vehicle initiative is one of the more sophisticated — and promising — economic-development efforts launched by Virginia in recent years. It encompasses more than smart cars. It includes drones, another up-and-coming industry — earlier this year, the first delivery of a humanitarian package by drone took place in Wise County — and autonomous boats.

“They seem like disparate industries, but when you start to think about sensor technologies, aerodynamics, there’s a lot of overlaps in capabilities that will support a land vehicle as well as an air vehicle or marine,” said Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson.  She says Virginia has the eighth largest concentration of autonomous-related companies in the country, including those that build sensors and analyze data.

Virginia formed an unmanned systems commission this summer with the following goals:

  • Identify the state of all unmanned systems industries in Virginia. This review should look comprehensively at the industry, including the supply chain from pre-competitive research and development through production and operation.
  • Identify challenges and needs of the unmanned system industry that may be met with Virginia assets for each domain of unmanned systems (aerial, land, maritime) including but not limited to workforce, research and engineering expertise, testing facilities, manufacturing facilities, and economic development opportunities within the Commonwealth.
  • Provide recommendations, develop a value proposition for economic-development marketing purposes, and submit periodic reports on its activities and findings.

Virginia can do much without showering subsidies and tax credits on the industry. For instance, the state has designated 70 miles of highways as “Virginia Automated Corridors” where fully automated cars can be tested on public roads. The state has implemented a simpler process for getting vehicles certified and on the road for testing. The Wallops Island spaceport is building a runway for drone testing, while an initiative is underway in Hampton Roads to develop autonomous boats.

Bacon’s bottom line: Google, Tesla and conventional automobile manufacturers are, and will continue to be, dominant players in developing and manufacturing autonomous cars, but there’s no reason that Virginia can’t get a share of the spoils from this emerging industry. The technology is new and in flux. The sector is big and sprawling, and hasn’t established a geographically centered clustered yet.

From a 10,000-foot perspective, Virginia seems to be going about this the right way, combining Virginia Tech’s R&D strengths with targeted economic-development marketing and the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) opening up of state roads for real-world testing.

The only piece not mentioned in Ramsey’s story is evidence of any study of the state’s liability laws. If anything holds back the development of autonomous vehicles in Virginia, and other states, it will be a hostile tort climate. Given the fact that 90% of all traffic accidents occur as the result of human error, autonomous vehicles will likely make the roads far safer. But if accidents occur involving autonomous vehicles, as inevitably they will, it will be virtually impossible in some instances to disprove plaintiff claims that the fault resided somewhere in the millions of line of code. (See the “Demon in the Machine.”) Sorting out liability issues in a way that both promotes the public welfare and compensates accident victims from genuine wrongs would give Virginia a huge competitive advantage.

One thing Virginia is indisputably good at is producing lawyers. We ought to bring our best legal minds together — I nominate Chris Spencer, one of the top automobile liability attorneys in the country — to craft model tort legislation. If we can add that to our list of assets, we truly can make Virginia a national leader in unmanned vehicles.

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6 responses to “Building an “Unmanned” Industry Cluster”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    I note that Germanna Community college is now offering Drone 101 and 201.

    Autonomous vehicles are going to have as much affect on our world as te internet and cell phones…

    but one thing is going to fail big time.

    and that’s self driving cars for average folks.

    self-driving cars are not as ‘smart’ as humans nor as aggressive and stupid.

    when you put a self-driving car in heavy …weaving.. type traffic , it’s like getting Granny to drive in it. Most Granny’s are wise enough to not do that but self driving cars have no “sense”.

    people pass them – then cut back in front of them – and the self driving cars promptly stomp on their brakes.

    humans can see traffic clumping up behind a tractor trailer a half mile ahead and switch lanes before they get trapped in the slow lane. Self driving cars drive stupidly right into it and will stay there until they can safely get out which might be a long, long time in some traffic.

    I think people will actually not feel safe in a self-driving car in heavy traffic… there will inevitably be close calls from the usual idiots pushing the envelope … and the self-driving cars cannot match those behaviors….

    my bet is that they will not be primarily people movers except in special circumstances were they are not in a bunch of human-driven cars but all of those self-driving vehicles will also be the “eyes” of the police – looking for the law-breaking idiots.. license tags of stolen vehicles and other assorted bad guys… etc.

    that’s might tip the scales if these cars can capture on video the idiots and get them introduced to the police for their behaviors.

    1. Larry, I share your fear. Human nature is perverse. People do game the system. I can see people behaving around self-driving vehicles exactly like you describe. If that’s the case, no one but old people and the handicapped will want to ride in one.

      1. Yes. Humans are not machines; they do not like to conform to machine-mannered rules; they will poke fun at the rules and circumvent the rules and occasionally, perversely, deliberately subvert the rules. The rest of us must accept human nature and occasionally know to get out of the way in spite of what the rules say. How do you teach THAT to another machine, such as a self driving car?

  2. Tort reform for self-driving cars is certainly achievable. Effectively the same thing has been achieved in the airline industry. While air travel is incredibly safe airplanes sometimes crash. When they do crash there is a protocol for how much money the families of the victims are awarded. Airlines don’t go bankrupt over a plane crash.

    The idea that self-driving vehicles won’t apply to “regular folks” is similarly misguided. My understanding is that Google has about $80,000 worth of electronics in its prototype self-driving cars. While that’s expensive it will come down in price with volume. The first in-dash GPS / mapping options cost something like $5,000. Now they cost something like $500. If “self-driving” became an $8,000 option I think you’ll see a lot of “regular people” choosing that option. Beyond that, I think you’ll see insurance companies offering greatly reduced rates to drivers who have “self-driving” cars and operate in “self-driving” mode.

    Here’s an interesting article comparing smartphones to the super-computers of old –

    The idea that the police will use the self driving cars to enforce the law is interesting but outdated. There are enough cameras in public paces that the police could use the cameras and video analysis software today to “see” bad drivers and stolen cars. Most local governments are hesitant to spy on their citizens in anything but a very targeted way.

    The real question is whether Virginia’s political elite can get out of gear and establish a state with regulations conducive to the cars and the industry. Certainly in the case of deregulation of the banking industry our state legislators were caught asleep at the wheel (pun intended). While our politicians debated Mr. Jefferson’s philosophy on yeoman farming the banks moved to the friendlier confines of Charlotte. I expect nothing different in this case.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    my view is not isolated though:

    ” Google’s vision of self-driving cars is wrong, says MIT professor”

    on the cameras… let me also point out that a moving camera is going to catch more behavior than a fixed one –

    and a thousand moving cameras are going to catch a LOT MORE behaviors and actually do offer the promise of tamping down the scofflaws…

    you capture the behavior on camera.. capture his plate.. and it pops up that the same guy does the same things all the time – AND has an accident record…

    some people are now using their own dash cams to record incidents …. and accidents…

    Some people expect the police to be keeping the idiots at bay – others think police crimp their style.. who will win? My bet is cameras are going to prevail.

    1. “The notion of ceding control of something as fundamental to life as driving to a big, opaque corporation — people are not comfortable with that,” Mindell said.

      I cede control of something as fundamental to life as flying through the air in an aluminum tube to a big opaque corporation (usually United Air Lines) every time I take a flight.

      This is going to happen.

      My point on the cameras is that police could put red light detecting cameras on every substantial intersection now. For example, Virginia only allows one red light camera site per 10,000 residents. Other states ban their use altogether. Why? Presumably people don’t like being spied upon by the government.

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