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Autonomous cars headed to Northern Virginia highways this year

July 28, 2017

George Mason University’s Shanjiang Zhu called Virginia’s decision to road test wirelessly connected and self-driving cars an important step needed to close the gap between simulation technology and real-world situations.

“I think it’s necessary for us to understand its implications and any problems we may see in the real world,” said Zhu, an assistant professor within George Mason’s Civil, Environmental and Infrastructure Engineering Department who is a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s Technical Advisory Committee.

Virginia will be one of six states, with the District of Columbia, that are testing the technologically advanced cars when it introduces them on Interstates 95 and 495 express lanes in Northern Virginia in the fall. The hope is the cars will lessen accidents and improve traffic flow. The cars will initially be tested on closed roads before expanding to “light traffic” conditions, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

There always will be a person behind the wheel, but the cars will assume some functions such as managing speed. Sensors will prevent the cars from drifting into other lanes and making contact with other connected cars. The cars should have a better feel for traffic flow, allowing them to merge into other lanes more safely and efficiently without bottleneck, VDOT said.

Still, it remains to be seen if driverless cars impact road safety and how they will interact with nonconnected, driver-controlled vehicles. The majority of motor vehicle accidents can be attributed to distracted drivers, according to state officials.

“It’s exciting to think about the potential for this technology to save lives,” said Elise Miller-Hooks, a professor in Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering and a former program director in the National Science Foundation’s Civil Infrastructure Systems Program. “It’s worth looking at.”

“I think this was somewhat expected,” Zhu said, “but it is exciting to see it happening here.”

Shanjiang Zhu can be reached at szhu3@gmu.edu or 703-993-1797.

Elise Miller-Hooks can be reached at miller@gmu.edu or 703-993-1685.

For more information, contact John Hollis at 703-993-8781 or jhollis2@gmu.edu.

About George Mason

George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls 35,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.