Published: October 20, 2015 | Arlington, VA
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute demonstrated its automated vehicle technology Monday on the I-95 Express Lanes, a stretch of asphalt on the notorious I-95 corridor that connects the traffic-choked suburbs of northern Virginia to the nation’s capital.
Officials at the institute and an administrator at the U.S. Department of Transportation said they believe it’s the first time that driverless technology this advanced has been tested on an actual highway, though they acknowledged that research in the field is evolving quickly and not always easily tracked.
It occurred at midday, when the Express Lanes were otherwise empty, as they were in the midst of the reversal process from northbound for the morning rush hour to southbound for the afternoon rush.
The specially modified Cadillac SRX wasn’t driverless. Virginia law requires a driver behind the wheel, and the technology still requires a driver to be ready to take over if necessary.
But the self-driving car handled lane changes on its own and adjusted speeds to account for simulated traffic and construction zones.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, participated as a passenger. His eyes widened when the car slowed on its own as the lead vehicle in the caravan hit its brakes. They widened again when the car shifted lanes with the driver’s hands off the wheel to make way for a police vehicle with its sirens wailing as part of the simulation.
The test conducted Monday by VTTI involved what is known as Level 3 automated technology, sort of a midpoint between fully automated technology and no automation. VTTI spokeswoman Mindy Buchanan-King said Monday’s test went beyond some of the other technology entering the marketplace because it allowed drivers to not only take their hands off the wheel and their foot off the pedals but also let them take their eyes off the road for extended periods.
The Virginia Tech technology contains some unique features, automatically shifting lanes to the right during the simulation when a state police trooper approached with sirens wailing. And the Cadillac automatically slowed as it approached a simulated work zone and traffic stop.