Commentary: It’s time planners notice Tysons is perfect for a driverless system

December 9, 2012

Imagine it’s a crazy day at the office and you need supplies. Wouldn’t it be nice to send a car to pick them up for you? That’s right. Just the car — with nobody driving.

Or say you get off the Metro at 1 a.m. Empty, van-sized conveyances wait outside the station. You step into one, touch your destination on a screen, then catch a few winks as the vehicle drives you home.

Such is the transformative power of self-driving transportation — and nowhere would it work better than Tysons. As a small, well-defined area, Tysons is easy to map and wire. The entire urban core could be blanketed by a connected vehicle system of control centers, sensors and software which would integrate travelers’ cell phones with intelligent cars and buses that never get tired and have 360-degree vision. The system would save travelers time, landowners space and give retailers brave new ways to reach consumers.

Such a vision is not currently part of the Tysons planning process. Because car traffic is projected to increase, Fairfax County is considering adding more ramps into the area and widening nearby highways — at considerable cost.

It doesn’t have to be. Since self-driving cars can safely operate much closer together, they take up less space than traditional cars on the same stretch of highway. “The typical highway lane can handle 2,000 vehicles per lane per hour,” consultant Richard Bishop said. “With automation, it’s 6,000 vehicles per lane per hour.” Therefore, if future cars are self-driving or at least self-aware, existing highways will be able to accommodate a traffic increase — and more lanes won’t be necessary.

Self-driving transit should be taken seriously:

Self-driving circulators could work inside and around the urban core. If a shuttle has its own lane, it will be more like what Maryland robotics expert Robert Finkelstein calls “a horizontal elevator.” Autonomous shuttles can also operate in mixed traffic, though they would need different safety systems and certification procedures.

On-demand “cyber cars” carrying individuals and groups up to 20 people could solve the “last mile” problem of getting nearby residents the short distance between Metro and home, especially at odd times such as late at night. The vehicles could be part of an advanced, connected car-sharing service which could be publicly or privately owned.

Smart, self-driving buses could reduce car traffic expected to pour in from Loudoun County and elsewhere. For instance, in a dedicated lane along Leesburg Pike, Route 7 “is a nice constrained route,” Finkelstein said. “All you need is a way to speed the express but to keep it out of traffic. The bus can control the intersection and controls the light. If other cars are jammed up – the bus can go right through.”

Next year, the Transportation Department will decide whether to start the process of requiring connected-vehicle technology in all cars. Meanwhile, businesses are banking on smarter vehicles; Intel has a newly launched $100 million Connected Car Fund.

So, the wiring is on the wall: It’s time for local planners and decision makers to reckon with this imminent technology.

Jenifer Joy Madden is an independent journalist. She is also vice chairwoman of the Fairfax County Transportation Advisory Commission, though her thoughts here are her own. She blogs at durablehuman.com and is @TysonsTraveler and @JJmaddn on Twitter.

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