Gov. Terry McAuliffe bounded into the spare offices of a start-up incubator to make a rapid-fire pronouncement: He will spend the last nine months of his term trying to make Virginia “the capital of automated vehicles.”
It was his economic development-meets-standup routine, and the commonwealth’s salesman in chief had industry leader California and other rivals in mind. With more than 280 wineries, Virginia is already on the Golden State’s heels in a crucial industry, the argument went.
“They’re going to think Napa is an auto parts company!” McAuliffe (D) jabbed, knocking the “lighter fluid out there.”
And driverless cars and drones, in air and water, are next up. “I want to own the land, the water and the sky,” McAuliffe told the roomful of tech execs and mobility wonks in Arlington County. “We’re going to bury those other 49 states. Worthless!”
It’s a goal shared by officials around the country, although often expressed with less competitive glee. Michigan, with its auto industry roots, has fought for a leading role, as has Pennsylvania, home to Carnegie Mellon University, which is among the institutions at the forefront of driverless-vehicle research. Texas, Massachusetts, Arizona and others are in the mix, too.
But Virginia’s approach also shows the pressures states face as they try to get a bigger foothold. In contrast to California, which is pursuing the nation’s most comprehensive regulations on self-driving vehicles, Virginia officials have made their lack of legislating and rulemaking a prominent part of their sales pitch.
“We have no rules that prohibit autonomous vehicles, no law. A lot of states do,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. “That’s intentional that we’re doing that.”
Some who believe robocars are barreling ahead too quickly are skeptical of Virginia’s approach.
“Honey always attracts the bees,” said Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate who headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under President Jimmy Carter and lives in the District. “They’re very different approaches. California is thinking of itself as a regulator. They’re overseeing the system. And Virginia is thinking of themselves as having a business opportunity.”
California is in the midst of a major regulatory struggle that shows both the perils and potential promise of trying to bring clarity to the fast-growing industry. The long-running effort could be completed soon after a public hearing Tuesday.
The state’s eagerness to get out front has “made it more difficult for the industry,” said Stan Caldwell, executive director of Traffic21, a research institute at Carnegie Mellon. States’ urge to act can bring unintended consequences, he said.
“The states are all trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to get industry there. They’re trying to keep it safe. But they can’t keep up with the technology curve,” Caldwell said.
Federal officials will need to evaluate whether all the state-by-state approaches are “interoperable,” Caldwell said. Some states have been combining their efforts, he added, citing Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan’s “Smart Belt Coalition.” That’s a play on Rust Belt, and it’s meant to promote driverless progress across state lines. The District is working with London, Helsinki and other cities to plan for the technology’s adoption. Maryland has called for testing on its stretch of the Interstate 95 corridor.
But with dozens of companies working on the technology in the nation’s most populous state, California remains a high-profile test case — and target.
In 2014, California required companies to apply for permission and make various disclosures when their autonomous cars are tested on the state’s roads. Today’s regulations require a person be at the wheel and ready to take control, if needed. Google’s Waymo team, Ford and a host of others are testing there.
Last year, California officials revoked registrations for Uber’s self-driving cars after the company argued that the rules didn’t apply to them. In response, Uber, which is based in San Francisco, trucked its cars to Arizona. The firm has since acceded to California’s rules and is back testing there as well.
In 2015, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles began releasing draft regulations that would govern broader deployment of the cars.
Last year, the state proposed requiring firms to obtain a resolution from local governments before testing cars without drivers in their neighborhoods. But industry representatives said that would drag them into endless quagmires. That requirement has been stricken from the latest draft rules. Firms instead would need to provide communities notice and describe how they will operate.
Companies would be required to provide a copy of responses to a voluntary 15-point safety checklist the U.S. Transportation Department created last year, and they also would need to certify that sufficient testing has been done to ensure safety.
Virginia, meanwhile, has tried not to do anything the industry might view as a roadblock.
“We haven’t done any regulations, because we just don’t know yet,” McAuliffe said, adding that he won’t do anything to “stymie” innovation. Layne has cited Uber’s run-in with California authorities, and traveled to Uber’s driverless technology headquarters in Pittsburgh to talk to the company about working with Virginia.
California officials reject the narrative that they are scaring away a potential cash cow. Apple obtained a California permit this month, and the state is doing important groundwork, they say.
“To see the possibility that we could have completely driverless vehicles on our roads by the end of the year is a pretty big deal,” said Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California DMV. Clarity will be a competitive plus, she said. “It’s definitely an advantage. . . . It’s a big responsibility, and we’re really excited about the proposed regulation.”
In Virginia, no applications or permits are required, and “a lot of times the companies that are testing don’t share the information with us,” Assistant Transportation Secretary Ronique Day said. “We really left Virginia open, to not create any additional process and red tape.”
Virginia officials say the central question about whether state law allows cars without drivers comes down to an interpretation of the commonwealth’s traditional motor vehicle code. The code defines an “operator” or “driver” as a person who drives or “is in actual physical control” of a vehicle. That has traditionally meant being in the car. But it does not necessarily preclude someone maintaining control remotely, officials said.
Despite some high-profile crashes of driverless vehicles elsewhere in the country, McAuliffe said the technology will be a step up from the status quo.
“Safety’s always a concern. It’s going to make us safer,” McAuliffe said. He noted that speed and alcohol cause vast numbers of road deaths. With driverless vehicles, “the car ain’t stopping off doing shots of whiskey.”
Beyond its big regulation-free welcome mat, Virginia has other major selling points, officials said.
A network of newish, privately run car-pool and toll lanes could help integrate autonomous vehicles into real-world traffic in big numbers in coming years, Layne said. While driverless cars are expected to carry passengers on short hops around congested cities, Layne thinks Virginia’s express lanes along I-495, I-95 and elsewhere can provide an attractive, free-flowing environment.
“The whole idea is going to be to get the utility out of the cars” by getting people where they’re going quickly and easily, he said.
The state has worked with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute to turn 78 miles along those express lanes and on Interstate 66, U.S. 50, U.S. 29 and U.S. 234 into what they call the Virginia Automated Corridors. They’ve done high-end mapping and put in roadside equipment that can talk to cars, and researchers have worked with driverless firms to test in those areas.
Virginia Tech also manages a state “smart road” near its campus, complete with snowblowers and monitoring equipment, that has been used to test technology from Google and others. The state has set aside $25 million a year for technology along its roadways, including to help facilitate autonomous vehicles, Layne said.
And Virginia’s constellation of military, intelligence and state facilities are potent resources for in-air and underwater drones, making Virginia a triple threat, said Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Warner has for years sought to make the state the top locale for developing unmanned technologies for defense and commerce.
“While we have competitors in each arena,” he said, “I want Virginia to be viewed as the most friendly toward unmanned systems.”
The state is set to formally open a new, 3,000-foot drone runway next month at NASA’s Wallops Island facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. That will allow small commercial drones — and bigger military and intelligence-grade ones — to take off and land without hassle and fly freely, officials said. Virginia is repairing a dock nearby so unmanned flights can link with underwater test missions there, and it is installing a facility to discreetly put small satellites aboard drones for defense-related testing, officials said.
“We’re not just looking at these technologies and these evolutions in their silos,” said Karen Jackson, the commonwealth’s secretary of technology. Researchers at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science will use autonomous kayaks and drones to view Eastern Shore sediment from different angles simultaneously, she said. Similarly, the state’s concentration of cybersecurity experts is valuable for research in autonomy, she said.
In California, there has been a mix of resignation and cautious optimism in tech circles that the industry will be able to work with that state’s latest regulatory approach. Many of the top companies are headquartered there, and driving on hometown roads is a point of pride. But potential flash points continue to appear.
The latest was a bill that would have required autonomous cars be electric or otherwise have zero emissions. That would exclude most current players, though not the Chevy Bolt EV or Teslas.
A state Senate transportation committee analysis said the bill would likely have required “low maximum speeds and close following distances, which sounds like a perfect recipe for inciting road rage.”
Opponents sidelined the proposal, amending it to call for a task force to recommend policies that would “maximize the environmental benefits and minimize the air pollution, traffic congestion, and land use impacts of autonomous vehicles.”
Still, some elsewhere see opportunity in the state’s regulatory efforts.
“Usually California gets in its own way,” Warner said. “That’s been an advantage for us.”