Test vehicles on display outside the Fairfax County Government Center. Image by the author.

Fairfax County and the state of Virginia are taking the lead in our region on the future of connected and autonomous vehicles. One big reason: economic development.

The state has taken a hands-off regulatory position to spur innovation and attract new jobs, and Fairfax County opened its doors early to the potential of driverless and connected vehicles. Back in 2013, I reported that Virginia Tech researchers had started using a stretch of I-66 near Merrifield as a test track for connected vehicles. In total, 70 miles of highways in Northern Virginia are now outfitted with equipment that allows test vehicles and their drivers to have “situational awareness.”

But for this emerging technology to actually benefit people and help our region, we have to plan deliberately. That was the consensus among a panel of experts convened by Fairfax County that included both government and tech leaders familiar with the field's cutting edge. The panel was held in conjunction with a demonstration and information event at the Government Center on May 3 called "Fairfax County: Test Track for Autonomous Vehicles." 

Traffic congestion won't necessarily disappear when humans aren't driving

Panel moderator David Zipper, managing director of startup hub 1776, posited two alternate visions of the autonomous future. In one, individual drivers would own self-driving vehicles which would threaten to create a chaotic world crowded with "zombie cars circling cities, [doing things like] delivering a tube of toothpaste from CVS at 11 pm.”

The second vision favors FAVES, short for Fleets of Autonomous Vehicles that are Electric and Shared—a term coined by Robin Chase, co-founder of car-sharing service Zipcar. FAVES could solve last-mile problems around Metro stations such as in Tysons or Reston."The last mile" refers to the distance between transit and home that is too far to comfortably walk. “As long as you can limit where vehicles operate, you can advance some of the technology quicker, on highways and in limited areas of the urban environment where speeds can be limited to 15 to 20 miles per hour,” claimed John Estrada, CEO of software developer eTrans Solutions.

Changing preferences away from individually-owned cars won't be easy

Individual comfort will continue to be a barrier to shared mobility, as it is now for public transportation. "As a society, we are very protective of our right to drive,” observed VDOT’s Cathy McGee, director of the Virginia Transportation Research Council.

A whole new level of comfort will emerge when people can doze while their cars drive themselves. As Estrada stated flatly, “If I sit in traffic, I don’t care. I’ll just sleep in the car.”

Even when travelers are awake, the draw of door-to-door transportation is powerful. "The real fear is that if I can sleep in my car why go to the trouble of riding Metro?" McGee stated. "If I could use the time in my car more efficiently, I might do that."

Autonomous vehicles may at least double highway capacity because cars will be able to safely travel on the roadway much more closely together. But as Dwight Farmer, an engineer with consulting firm RK&K, pointed out, the excess capacity could be quickly consumed by cars carrying people who now have a hard time driving alone.

It falls on local and state government to guard the public interest. "Land use, transportation, public safety, economics, and other topics are where local governments play a role," said Sharon Bulova, Chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, in her opening remarks.

“Government could give priority to transit vehicles,” Estrada reasoned. But a comment by VDOT’s McGee belied how easily priority could go to single-occupant cars: “The day will come that we may take express lanes and make them AV lanes.”

Our land use models are set to change, as are the ways we tax transportation

"We are going to see different patterns of circulation,” said McGee. Parking spaces, for instance, will become pull-off areas. “It will change the way we lay out streets.”

If autonomous cars are in use all day there will also be less need for long-term parking lots. “There’s an opportunity for much more productive use of land,” Estrada noted.

Delivery drones on the ground and in the air will further complicate the land use picture. As MWCOG’s Jon Schermann pointed out at a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority panel last month, the region is going to “need regulations, command and control, operational plans and standards.”

Also, as cars become increasingly electric, it no longer makes sense for a transport tax based on gasoline sales and consumption. An audience member pointed out that taxing vehicle-miles-traveled might control the proliferation of zombie vehicles.

“Electrification is just a game-changer,” admitted RK&K’s Farmer, adding that “we haven’t created the political environment to support that.”

To prepare for all of this, local governments in our region would be wise to join Osmosys, a movement started by Robin Chase where jurisdictions and institutions work together to plan carefully for autonomous vehicles. Its guiding principles include the idea that fleets of publicly or privately owned autonomous vehicles are preferable to widespread individual ownership, walking and biking should be modes of choice for in-city travel, and that we should start planning now what to do for those who lose jobs when autonomous vehicles are commonplace.

We have a rare opportunity to act

Unlike when smart phones dropped on us from the digital heavens, we as a society have some time to influence the changes that will be wrought by smart cars. So let’s get going. As VDOT’s McGee pointed out, “To get societal benefit, we need to plan together."