Google car in Blacksburg. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.
Google car in Blacksburg. Photo credit: Roanoke Times.

As usual, technology is evolving more rapidly than the ability of pundits, bureaucrats and politicians to absorb the implications — especially in the realm of transportation. Two more cases in point:

Googleburg. Google is now testing its self-driving car on the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road in Blacksburg. Reports the Roanoke Times:

The technology giant has spent the past month in Blacksburg putting amateur test subjects behind the wheel of one of its self-driving cars at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road. The drivers were confronted with a range of scenarios and judged on how they responded.

Semiautonomous cars switch control back and forth between the driver and the vehicle. Among other questions, Google wanted to know how well people were able to manage these transitions.

A graphic view of the technology behind platooning.
A graphic view of the technology behind platooning.

Meanwhile in Sweden… The Europeans are investigating the potential for autonomous cars to engage in “platooning,” cars following one another almost bumper to bumper. Such a practice would be considered unsafe with human drivers, with their slow reaction times, but theoretically can be perfectly safe when cars can accelerate and brake in unison. Platooning can boost mileage efficiency by up to 20% and increase the capacity of highways. (Hat tip: Larry Gross.)

Politicians on board! Southwest Virginia’s two congressmen participated in a public relations event yesterday to publicize the Google car tests. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, took a couple of test laps around Tech’s closed track. Said Goodlatte: “It’s technology that is going to revolutionize transportation, the automotive industry and perhaps most importantly of all. … it’s going to enhance automobile safety and I think efficiency as well.”

Great! It’s nice to know someone is paying attention. Now, please tell us how Congress will sort out the liability issues when a Google car on auto-pilot gets in a wreck. Meanwhile, Virginia political leaders need to ask themselves (a) will driverless cars inspire more Vehicle Miles Driven, as one might expect if a person can spend his commute surfing the web or checking email instead of paying attention to the road; (b) can platooning increase the capacity of Virginia’s existing highway infrastructure; (c) do Virginia roads and highways require capital investment to accommodate driverless cars, (d) will practices like platooning require a re-write of traffic laws, (e) should it be legal for a 12-year-old to ride alone in a driverless car? …and that’s just off the top of my head.


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4 responses to “Yikes! Driverless Cars in Blacksburg.”

  1. I think what we’re going to see more and more – is onboard cameras to go along with onboard computers – and when accidents occur, all of these things will become “evidence” for determining who shot John, etc..

    knowing how many drivers have been ‘cut off’ by scofflaw drivers that then resulted in accidents is driving the movement towards dash cams…

    the autonomous vehicles are going to have to protect themselves from such driver behaviors if they are to survive and move forward.

  2. Why do you insist that government is lagging? NHTSA has a major safety study underway, and the California DMV is investigating certification, licensing, and insurance issues. And Sweden’s platooning? We did that in 1997.

    Virginia is right to proceed cautiously. Google’s car is unable to change lanes on its own, and has no real crash avoidance strategy other than braking. It also has trouble telling the difference between a plastic bag and a bag of cement on the roadway. Those laser sensors can only see 70 meters, and can only really understand what they’re looking at within 30 meters. That’s one second ahead at 70 mph. The other automakers are even further behind. Sure, the technology is cool, but it’s not that good yet.

    1. e4e6, Here in Virginia, government is way behind the curve. There has been nearly zero discussion about driverless cars and the implications for state policy. A handful of other states are ahead — no surprise that California is one of them. But I’ll bet that even Californians haven’t really thought through the implications of driverless cars for Vehicle Miles Traveled, commuting patterns and mass transit usage.

  3. I’ll just put in my usual plug – that technology like this is going to progress, stoked by young people with excellent world-class educations and if you want to say something about VA – talk about if young residents of Va are going to grow up to go to Tech and UVA to do this or immigrants from other countries are.

    In order for Va to have their eye on this ball – they have to commit to providing young people with globally-competitive educations.

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