Smarter "Smart Road" Paves the Way for Driverless Vehicles

Nov 16, 2017

Smart Road bridge in autumn (overlooking the planned rural roadway expansion)
Credit Matthew Moeller / Virginia Tech Transportation Institue

Virginia Tech’s “Smart Road” has been putting cars through their paces for almost 20 years. New additions to its test tracks unveiled in Blacksburg this week are paving the way for driverless cars to, one day, do the driving for us. 

Experts say there will always be options to drive on your own, because it’s a big world out there and a lot of it is full of gravel or dirt roadways. For people who want them, though, driverless cars could be a life enhancer, offering mobility to those who could not otherwise travel on their own.

At the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, research associate Gibran Ali is driving me along a test track known as the Smart Road, when all of a sudden, visibility and road conditions go down hill fast.

Ali says, “We can create light, to very dense, fog and for snow, we can create up to 10 inches of snow an hour.”

This 2 mile, 2 lane road is great for testing cars and trucks under adverse highway conditions, but with driverless vehicles coming, VTTI has added new, state of the art test roads that can transmit high speed safety data to explore how the autos would behave on winding, rural roads or in a busy urban setting. Shane Mclaughlin designed them. “There are  merge areas, multi car interaction scenarios, a traffic circle, intersections that are not laid out exactly square.  And you can enter it, at speed, off the highway portion.”

McLaughlin’s team studies how people drive and the mistakes they make, in order to build in the right safeguards for driverless cars going forward.  One of the problems they’re looking at is the recent increase in pedestrian fatalities. They appear to be due to people focused on their devices instead of the road. But this technology may make it possible to develop "device to car warning systems." That’s one of the many safeguards that will be need to be considered before driverless cars go mainstream. 

Currently, VTTI is testing so called ‘driverless cars’ with a driver inside to take care of any issues that arise. Director of Outreach Myra Blanco says the next step, somewhere down the road, will be testing cars with no one at the ‘wheel.’   

Where they're going, they may not NEED steering wheels...
Little REMO, a Remote Evasive Maneuvering Object, 'runs' out in traffic to teach smart cars to stop
Credit Matthew Moeller / Virginia Tech Transportation Institue

While many people can’t wrap their heads around how driverless cars will work on American roads, the industry is moving fast to develop them.

VTTI’s Smart Road, where companies go to test their prototypes, just got a degree smarter, thanks to new tracks that simulate real world driving conditions and team of experts studying how humans drive and what causes the most accidents. 

The New, Expanded Smart Road
Credit Matthew Moeller

Myra Blanco, who heads the Center for Public Policy, says autonomous cars hold promise not only for improving safety on the roads, but also for helping people be more autonomous themselves.

“How about people who cannot drive, they need this to be able to have a job, an elderly person that wants to age in place and be able to still go to the hair salon, to still go do grocery shopping but they don’t feel comfortable to drive in the evenings.”

Blanco says there are still roadblocks ahead, from infrastructure to updating the language and laws that govern highway safety. Right now, for example, there are lots of rules and regulations that relate to a car’s steering wheel, but the cars of the future may not need steering wheels at all.