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Virginia County Pursues Autonomous, Work Zone Safety Tech

Relay, an autonomous shuttle program launched in Fairfax County, Va., in October 2020, is offering officials a better understanding of how driverless shuttles navigate live traffic and how to improve work zone safety.

Autonomous and connected vehicle technology is moving forward in Virginia in the form of driverless shuttles and safety improvements around work zones.

The autonomous shuttle program known as Relay launched in October in Fairfax County, is ready for its second act, while state transportation officials are exploring how connected vehicle tech can improve the safety around work zones by communicating with autos.

“Doing projects like this are just really, really important to really understand how the technology integrates with the infrastructure, how the technology integrates within this kind of civic framework,” said Eta Nahapetian, manager of smart community and innovation and strategy at the Fairfax County Department of Economic Initiatives (DEI).

The Relay autonomous shuttle pilot is viewed "our most ambitious” project remarked Nahapetian on Thursday during a symposium titled Creating an Autonomous Vehicle Ecosystem in Virginia, organized by the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority.

“It really launched our direction in the smart cities space,” Nahapetian added.

Relay, which includes a human operator, connected a rail station with a busy residential and shopping district, operating in live traffic. It was viewed largely as a pilot program to introduce the technology to users, close first-mile, last-mile gaps and explore how AV shuttles could be further perfected for daily use.

“Without these kind of real-world tests, the opportunities would not present themsel[ves],” said Sarah Husain, a transportation planner with the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

Some of the Relay shuttle’s challenges included its low speed — it only moves at about 10 mph — an inability to operate fully in inclement weather, downtime needed for software upgrades and little flexibility to deviate from the program’s set route.

The county is looking into shuttles with more capabilities and features, as well as exploring an on-demand service model, Husain added.

The shuttle program was a partnership between Fairfax County and Dominion Energy, with a number of other officials and organizations involved. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) studied the project closely, installing additional cameras and monitoring the operation closely, said Mike Mollenhauer, director of the Center for Technology Implementation at VTTI.

“They gave us 360-degree coverage. We monitored every minute of every drive and recorded the video,” said Mollenhauer, speaking at the symposium.

The team looked for “interesting events” like acceleration, disengagement from the AV system during an emergency stop, etc.

“And then we provide feedback to the team,” said Mollenhauer, adding, operating a shuttle in live traffic — alongside often aggressive drivers — was a valuable test environment.

“I think it was probably one of the first and most challenging environments, particularly for the vehicle type that we were working with,” he added.

VTTI has also been working closely with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to test and develop connected vehicle technologies with work zones eyed as particularly well-suited for these advancements.

“We believe it’s much safer if you can provide the vehicle with a digital definition of what that work zone is prior to when it arrives in the area, so that it can choose to route itself around that work zone if it thinks its capabilities aren’t able to handle it,” said Mollenhauer. “Or, potentially, it can just prepare itself to be ready for the types of hazards we see in a work zone, things like queues that have been developing.”

VTTI developed an application called the Work Zone Builder to allow the transportation officials designing a work zone to publish useful data for autonomous or connected vehicles to consume for a better understanding of what is there and when it’s active, said Mollenhauer.

“And so those types of technologies can really expand the digital horizon for that vehicle so that it has a better understanding of what it’s about to face,” he added.

Connected vehicle technologies have broad potential to improve the safety of not only work zones, but the rest of the highway as well, said Cathy McGhee, director of research and innovation with the Virginia Transportation Research Council at VDOT.

“One of the best things about technology is it doesn’t get distracted,” said McGhee. “And driver-distraction has become such a huge problem for us. So we’re looking to the technology to help us put safety first, and begin to drive down those injury and fatality numbers.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.