Image courtesy of Fairfax County.

This article was first published in the Virginia Mercury.

Last week when Virginia’s new Secretary of Transportation Sheppard Miller publicly declared his belief that flying cars will be a reality within the next 50 years as a reason that leaders across the commonwealth should “reexamine transit,” some might have scoffed.

But just as flying cars consumed the fantasies of many mid-century Americans, today plenty of people put their faith in another utopian technology replete with endlessly elusive promises of improved safety and unbridled freedom: autonomous vehicles.

‘The Wild West’

As is often the case in the United States, the regulation of autonomous vehicles is largely left to the states, resulting in a patchwork of conflicting and confusing policies where some sort of national approach ought to exist. Any state has the right to craft their own legal framework for the emerging technology but few have — our commonwealth included.

“Virginia doesn’t have anything exclusively written for AVs yet, so it’s just the current code applied to AVs,” said Amanda Hamm, the Virginia Department of Transportation’s connected and automated vehicle program manager. “Currently AVs are basically just being treated as human drivers. Any law that applies to a person operating a vehicle also applies to whoever is operating that autonomous vehicle.”

Much of the regulation of AVs is left to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which controls federal motor vehicle safety standards. States that lack their own legal framework simply apply the stance of the NHTSA on everything from the design of the vehicles to the nomenclature of their operation.

So far the NHTSA has done little to prevent AVs from running red lights, swerving toward concrete barriers, or even killing pedestrians; however, last month the agency launched an education campaign to help consumers understand that systems like those from Tesla called “autopilot” and “full self-driving” don’t truly mean what they say (and could kill you or others).

“When we talk about AVs the Wild West metaphor keeps popping up because effectively there are no federal regulations,” said Peter Norton, author of the book Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving. “Lots of states have rules about having a hand on the steering wheel which is frustrating for these tech companies that want to turn our roads into their laboratories.”

‘Open for business’

Everyone from Audi and Daimler to the Federal Highway Administration itself have been conducting automation trials on Virginia roads in recent years. Although some of the testing has been focused on military uses of the technology, much of the hope for AVs lies in their potential commercial value.

Experiments with “in-lane platooning” could allow 18-wheeler convoys to operate more safely in tandem on highways. “Cooperative automation” describes the idea that cars may one day be able to receive signals from beacons implanted in their surroundings such as traffic lights or crosswalks to drive at the optimal speed to avoid red lights or to anticipate a pedestrian crossing the road.

Although many of the hoped-for safety advancements have yet to materialize, the promise of a potential AV breakthrough has certainly drawn in research and development dollars. Virginia Tech alone operates two separate test beds — one in Northern Virginia focused on “intelligent transportation systems” and one in Blacksburg studying automation’s interplay with busy urban environments.

Tech highlights the “26,000 hours of groundbreaking research” done on its Smart Roads because that is the main metric corporations developing automation technology care about, according to Norton. “There is pressure on these companies for their AVs to get as many miles on the road as possible because every mile driven is a chance for these vehicles to learn and also for the companies to collect data. Every politician in the country wants to be business friendly and that creates this competition to allow AVs without a full legal process to permit these safely.”

The mentality that Norton sums up as “you can kill people here, and we’ll still let you do it” is unfortunately no exaggeration in some parts of America. After California’s DMV hinted it may not renew Uber’s permit to operate self-driving vehicles on public roads due to safety concerns, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey advertised his state as “open for business.” That came with fatal consequences for Elaine Herzberg, the Phoenix woman run over and killed by an Uber AV in March 2018.

A slow shuttle

Besides the thousands of autopilot-enabled Teslas on Virginia’s roads, the only AV currently operating on the commonwealth’s corridors is a benign-looking blue van. Fairfax County’s Relay electric shuttle seats no more than six (including the safety steward), cannot go over 10 miles per hour, and only travels a one mile long route between the Dunn Loring Metro Station and the Mosaic District — a ritzy residential and retail development.

The Relay pilot program began in October of 2020. Due to COVID-19 restrictions the shuttle has long only been allowed to carry two passengers at a time. With just two stops (Barnes & Noble and the Metro station) and operating hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, it’s easy to question the utility of the shuttle as actual transportation.

“The misconception has always been that this pilot is about passengers, but we are really focused on the technology and how the shuttle itself interacts with other vehicles on the road and pedestrians within the Mosaic District,” explained John Zarbo, the operations section chief at Fairfax Connector, the transit agency running Relay.

So far the shuttle has caused no crashes and interacted well with other vehicles and people on foot. “One area that we’ve had challenges we didn’t anticipate has been vegetation along the corridor,” Zarbo added. “Everything has been mapped out for this vehicle, but every month to month and a half we have to intervene to trim trees and cut grass back.”

County leaders have considered other shuttle routes around the Reston or Franconia Metro stations, but the limits of the technology have so far prohibited a second shuttle coming online. Whether it’s fast-flowing highway traffic or a complex urban environment, humans are far better at adapting their behavior to changing conditions. As impressive as AV technology is, there’s a reason the Relay shuttle requires a 10 mph speed limit and a safety steward behind the wheel.

As long as AVs remain something of a pipedream, people will also question such shuttle programs’ high costs per rider. To run its one-mile long operation for two years, Relay has received $416,000 in grants from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation. Fairfax County has provided matching funds of $104,000. Could Virginians have been better served if that money had been invested elsewhere? Norton would argue yes.

“When we take public money to subsidize a private venture like this, that raises questions about our values and what we’re willing to fund,” he said. “Public money should go where it serves the public interest with equity and cost efficiency in mind, and I don’t think this shuttle meets that standard. The real future is in far more cost effective things like bike lanes and bus-only lanes. How many nice bus shelters could Fairfax County have got for $520,000?”

Wyatt Gordon is the senior policy manager for land use and transportation at the Virginia Conservation Network, and an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Urban Planning. He's a born-and-raised Richmonder with a master's in Urban Planning from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa and a bachelor's in International Political Economy from American University.