Image courtesy of Fairfax County 

The State of Virginia, Fairfax County, and Dominion Energy recently launched Relay, a free self-driving and 100% electric public transportation shuttle, that will circulate between the commercial hub of Mosaic District in Merrifield, Virginia, and the Dunn Loring Metrorail Station.

Relay will be available to public riders for about a year, and George Mason University School of Business is seeking public feedback on the pilot program.

This is the first extended test of self-driving public transportation on public roads in the region. It is also only the second public-private partnership for an autonomous public transportation demonstration project in Virginia.

Dominion Energy purchased the vehicle while the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and Fairfax County are providing for the vehicle operating costs. Other partners on the project are EDENS (the developer behind Mosaic District), the Virginia Department of Transportation, and research partners Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the George Mason University School of Business.

While the shuttle is fully automated, a safety steward is on board at all times and the shuttle is restricted to low speeds. As a precaution against COVID-19, masks are required for passengers who are spaced apart and the vehicle is frequently cleaned.

Relay operates Monday through Thursday from 10 am to 2 pm p.m. from the Dunn Loring Metrorail Station bus bay A to the Barnes and Noble stop at Mosaic District.

Self-driving public vehicles are proposed as a safer and greener “first and last mile” innovation to connect mass transit with commercial hubs and residential neighborhoods. The project will determine if the technology is deemed potentially safer and more convenient by residents and commuters. The pilot will also educate the community on more environmentally friendly low-emission travel.

Safety concerns and public perception are critical to the successful adoption of autonomous vehicle technology. Past pilot projects in the region were more cautious and controlled, operating on private road networks with less traffic. Relay will be operating on public roads with regular off-peak traffic and crossing a busy six-lane intersection with a full traffic signal.

If Relay is successful, data from the project may help future self-driving shuttles navigate even more complex situations and driving conditions as well as encourage more ridership.

If proven effective, economically feasible, and widely accepted, autonomous vehicles have great potential to influence the future use and design of neighborhoods, buildings, parking, logistics, and infrastructure. Some advocates’ ultimate dream is to drastically reduce private car ownership in the future with transportation becoming a service on demand through shared self-driving vehicles.

Others are more skeptical about how widely or quickly fully autonomous vehicles will become common. In their minds, this is not the same as the internal combustion-engine vehicle replacing the horse-drawn buggy but will rather be a much more gradual and cautious process.

Technology around autonomous vehicles is at the much more difficult stage of early practical research and testing in real-world conditions such as with the Relay project. As part of this effort, George Mason University will administer surveys and collect information from social media postings to track changes in community perception of autonomous vehicle technology over the test period.

You can participate in the shared autonomous vehicle baseline survey here.

Eric Maribojoc lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, and is the director of the Center for Real Estate Entrepreneurship at the George Mason University School of Business. He enjoys living in Northern Virginia and learning about the area's real estate, history, and nature.