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Virginia Lawmakers Take Hands-Off Approach on Autonomous Vehicles to Encourage Innovation

Right now, the only law that affects AVs states that a driver must be behind the wheel. Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne hopes the hands-off approach encourages innovation.

(TNS) -- There were mostly vague answers, and I was frustrated by that.

But earlier this month, the Eno Center for Transportation, a D.C. think tank, held an autonomous vehicles and state policy roundtable discussion in Arlington, and the reason why those answers were vague became clear.

The roundtable brought together representatives from Uber, Daimler, Volkswagen, AAA, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, urban planning firms, tech companies, localities like Virginia Beach, the Virginia Department of Transportation and other state DOTs.

The main message: Autonomous technology is new, it’s sexy and lawmakers want to get on the bandwagon of creating friendly laws to attract companies dealing in the new tech – but they also want to hold off on making drastic changes to state policy and infrastructure.

That’s just what Virginia is doing. Right now, the only law that affects AVs states that a driver must be behind the wheel. Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne hopes the hands-off approach encourages innovation.

“We’re a blank slate and we’ve chosen to do that on purpose,” he said. “We don’t want to stymie the process (with regulation).

“We’re learning to embrace the unknown. We don’t want our policies to be outdated by the time the technology gets here.”

By the end of summer, VDOT plans to have a report called “Virginia Automated 20XX,” which will look at a planning for AVs, now, in the short-term and three to seven years out.

Among the Eno Center’s preliminary recommendations:

Consider that legislation or regulatory action will not necessarily attract or deter AV testing in your state.

Adhere to consistent definitions used by the auto industry and the national traffic safety administration.

Be careful not to overburden companies with state permits and reporting requirements. Consistency across state lines will help.

Authorize specific pilot programs for real-world testing.

Form an autonomous vehicle advisory committee with a wide range of stakeholders.

Concentrate on keeping roads, lane marking and traffic signals in good shape. These are key infrastructure for AV’s.

State governments should partner with universities to develop testing grounds and fund research to understand how AVs could affect the broader transportation network.

Layne says many drivers are still uncomfortable with the idea of self-driving cars, but nearly 70 miles of highways and streets, including the Express Lanes in Northern Virginia, have been used as a test bed for autonomous vehicles.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe closed out the event with a Q&A and I asked him what his experience with autonomous vehicles has been like. McAuliffe said he hasn’t been in a fully autonomous vehicle, but did have a good anecdote about a semi-autonomous Tesla test drive he did in Virginia Beach during the 2015 Governor’s Transportation Conference.

We’ll just let him take it from here:

“So I’m down in Virginia Beach and the media is asking me to just take it for a spin around the block. It was a Tesla Model S. I hadn’t been behind the wheel in three years, so I take it slowly down around the block. It’s a beautiful car. I saw a sign for (Interstate) 64 West and so I take the Tesla rep down 64, the state police in the big Suburban is behind me. I got this thing to 90 mph in eight seconds. Hit the (semi-autonomous vehicle) for 14 miles I didn’t touch a thing. Meanwhile this big old black SUV is just left in the dust. What an experience. The car was magnificent. I think you’ve got to get people to try them to see how it works.”

McAuliffe said he understands people’s concerns about the technology, especially with some high-profile crashes, but that will happen with any innovative technology.

“The technology is going to happen. By 2030, it’s supposed to be an $80 billion business. I want in on that.”

New sign coming to Ocean View

I often get readers that come to me with traffic issues that bother them. Sometimes, I ask about it and the problem gets fixed; sometimes it doesn’t.

But one reader had a 20-year irk in Ocean View that will be resolved by Norfolk soon.

Joe Leatherman, who worked in the area, described a signage problem on northbound Tidewater Drive in an email: “Motorists unfamiliar with the area and destined for Granby St., round a blind curve (heading north on Tidewater) and are instantly presented with an array of road signs at the interchange, none that read ‘Granby St.’”

Indeed, there are signs for I-64, routes 60, 168, 460 and 4th View Street. It’s a lot to take in traveling 45 mph.

Leatherman says a Granby Street sign was there 30 years, but was blown down in a storm and never replaced.

“I always use extreme caution there as traffic often slows down abruptly at the sign’s sudden appearance and you can feel driver’s frustration in trying to make a split second decision, and if they’re in the left lane, will often make a precarious lane change to avoid missing the exit,” Leatherman wrote.

Public Works will install a sign on the side of the that reads: “Granby Street, Next Exit.”

Thanks for bringing up the issue, Joe. And kudos to Norfolk for the quick response.

Finishing up

Bike month is coming up in May. You can expect bike-related events across the region for serious riders and casual riders, too. Events in Norfolk include: a May 7 ride from Smartmouth Brewery to Norfolk International Airport at 8 a.m. and a Ghent Loup ride from 12-2 p.m. The NEON District Glow Ride is 8:30 p.m. on May 19. See the full list at

AAA says the majority of U.S. drivers (60 percent) seek autonomous technologies, like lane assist and auto-parallel parking, in their next vehicle, but they continue to fear the fully self-driving car. Three-quarters of drivers say they’re afraid to ride in a self-driving car, and only 10 percent report that they’d actually feel safer sharing the roads with driverless vehicles.

Quick updates and tidbits on the Lesner Bridge in Virginia Beach: All traffic is on the newly constructed bridge. Demolition of both old bridges began Jan. 25, and it’s being systematically dismantled piece by piece. Most of the removed beams with attached deck will be transferred to barges and be used to encourage reef growth at the Cabbage Patch Reef located off the shoreline of Kiptopeke State Park. Some of the removed degraded beams will be studied and strength-tested by Virginia Tech’s transportation institute. Meanwhile, installation of the new second span will begin while demolition continues.

Shameless plug: I’m on Facebook now at There you’ll find this guy show you a video of how the new E-ZPass Flex works, among other transportation links, news and tidbits. It’s like this column, but all week. Give that page a like.


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