Fairfax County aims to be prime test track for self-driving cars

- According to experts, it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when – as some day we will all be riding around in cars that drive themselves. Fairfax County is making a big push to be at the forefront of the new technology.

It is predicted that within five years, you will be able to sit back as a passenger in your own car with no one required to steer the wheel. Within 20 to 30 years, it is expected this will be the way most people will get around.

However, there will be a tricky transition period and that is why Fairfax County is working to bring all of the players working on this driverless technology together that will help people get around safely.

Some of the cutting edge technology already available on the market was on display Wednesday in Fairfax. But it is not just about automation. It is also about connectivity.

About 200 people signed up for this event to take a test ride in the Audi Q7 and the Tesla Model X, which are identified as Level 2 automation. Depending on the circumstances, these vehicles know to stay in a lane or brake on their own.

“It was really cool seeing how they stop so smoothly,” said one test driver.

While Level 2 cars are the only ones you will see on the road right now, Level 5 automation would be a car that completely drives itself.

Becoming a society where everyone gets around in a Level 5 vehicle, that would require connectivity or communication between both cars as well as infrastructure. A company called eTrans Systems, which is hoping to be involved in this new marketplace, showed off its connectivity software.

“The biggest problem we see right now is distraction,” said Cathy McGhee, director for the Virginia Transportation Research Council. “People are doing all kinds of things in their vehicle while they are supposed to be paying attention to the driving task.”

To research, she said they have also been working with Virginia Tech to outfit vehicles with multiple cameras and a black box-like device to connect with sensors already placed along Interstate 66, the Beltway, U.S. Route 50 and Route 29.

“About six billion crashes that happen in the U.S. every single year and 32,000 people die every year,” said Reginald Viray, a research associate for the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute. “If you could substantially decrease that by 80 to 90 percent, look at all those lives that you could save.”

The self-driving technology could also open doors for the elderly, blind or handicapped people.

“It's a real time of change I think in the transportation world and we are excited to be on the leading edge,” said McGhee.

Right now, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is actually paying people to drive advanced technology cars on those connected highways for research.

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