The Future Is Here: Autonomous Vehicle Hits the Road for Test Drive on I-395

Tested in real world conditions Thursday, Oct. 12 with state police escort

Zachary Doerzaph, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute executive director. Photo Judith Fogel

ARLINGTON, VA-“More than 40,000 people a year are dying on our nation’s highways. That’s an unbelievably big toll,” began Zachary Doerzaph, Executive Director at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) in Blacksburg.  On Thurday, Oct. 12, he addressed a room full of transportation engineers and local leaders at the Long Bridge Aquatics Center in Arlington just off I-395.

The occasion? The unveiling of a shiny new autonomous vehicle, a Ford F-150 with a variety of impressive high-tech features and functionalities. Three years in the making, the ambitious project is the brainchild of VTTI, in partnership with Transurban and a consortium of transportation safety outfits and vehicle manufacturers.

Automated vehicle waits to be taken out for a test run. The shuttle transporting participants sits behind the demo vehicle. Photo provided by Virginia Tech

Doerzaph laid out the grim statistics. “If you’re lucky enough not to be one of those people, over your lifetime roughly 3.2 million people are going to die on our roads. Starting from that point, it feels fundamentally unacceptable that that’s where we exist today. We see automated technology as one of the best tools we have in our toolbox.”

Safety was the paramount theme of the morning. Driverless cars promise to be much safer on our roadways and highways, automated technology experts predict.

And now it was time to show off the star of the morning before taking it on the road. Industry officials, participants, and the media gathered outside to view the automated Ford pickup truck.

Only a lucky few got to ride in the vehicle while the rest boarded a shuttle to watch the Ford in real time on a real highway. The tech-saturated Ford revved up its gadgetry and glided toward the 395 HOV entrance.

The live demonstration only had one hour to strut its stuff, in that tight window when the HOV is dormant in both directions. Escorted by state police cars, the Ford cruised down the highway from Pentagon City past Seminary Road and then back up again. Midway, the shuttle and Ford stopped. Decked out in bright yellow construction vests and hard hats, VIPs left the bus for a quick photo op, smack in middle of the empty express lane while high-speed traffic whipped past them on both sides of the regular lanes.

VIP photo shoot on 395 Express Lane. Center: Alexandria City Councilmember Sarah Bagley. Photo Judith Fogel

“Really exciting, pretty thrilling,” commented Doerzaph, beaming.

“We are taking the ominous out of autonomous,” added Joe Mclain of Crash Avoidance Metrics Partners.


After the demo, Doerzaph talked to The Zebra about this new technology, again mentioning the lives lost on highways, saying it is unacceptable.

“The simple task of moving ourselves from one place to another should not be the most risky activity we do every day. That’s something most of us don’t appreciate.”  He continued: “Every day that we get into our vehicles and turn that key, we’re putting ourselves at a very elevated risk, relative to our normal activities. That should not be the case.“

An inside look at the maze of wires and intricate circuity that powers the autonomous Ford pickup. Photo provided by Virginia Tech

Virginia State police are on board with this new technology. Captain J-P. N. Koushel, Division Commander, told The Zebra he supports anything that reduces the carnage on our roads.

“This will cut down on human error and make our highways and streets safer,” he explained. “You can have one person looking down on his phone, he crashes into the car in front of him, causes a chain reaction, totally backs up traffic, one human error or distraction can trigger complete chaos. This is a good development and I am hopeful.”

Doerzaph wants to achieve Vision Zero, a national effort to bring traffic fatalities and severe injuries to Zero or close to it.

Alexandria City Councilmember Sarah Bagley attended the program and hopped on the shuttle for the highway ride. Afterward, she told The Zebra she came “because I wanted to understand the problem they felt they were aiming to solve with this technology.” But Bagley did raise concerns.

“Driverless cars are still heavy, at times dangerous, high energy consumption tools to move people from point to point. I was encouraged at the repeated mention of Vision Zero and the emphasis on safety and their goal of eliminating or reducing the 40,000 road deaths we experience each year in this country,” she added. “I appreciated their point that an automated vehicle is never tired and is not distracted.”

On the shuttle, behind the Ford demo, before take-off. Left to right: Kate Mattice, executive director of Northern Virginia Transportation Commission and Alexandria City Councilwoman Sarah Bagley. Photo Judith Fogel

While Bagely is positive overall about the technology, she pointed out the many transportation options available in Alexandria that are safer and energy efficient such as trolleys, Metrorail, DASH, and Capital Bikeshare.

“I am rooting for VTTI and their partners to keep pushing the boundaries of what is possible,” she said. “ While they work, the classic bus [which is fare-free and zero emmission] in Alexandria is still a safe and climate friendly way to move around our city!”

When will a high-tech self-driving car appear in our garages? Doerzaph had an answer. Because of the high cost, he explained the ride-hailing model will come first. And it will be easier to move goods and freight as trucks could drive all night without needing to stop for drivers to rest. Within decades, Doerzaph predicts people will start buying driverless cars.

Will you need some certification akin to a driver’s test to navigate these cars? He hopes there will be regulatory oversight. But that would come from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This whole new change in the way we drive is “not a revolution, it’s an evolution.” [SEE ALSO: Registration Now Open for City of Alexandria Composting Program]

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