Virginia commits to putting self-driving cars on roads

Just as some experts are sounding the alarm about the potential for hacking into the connected car, transportation officials in Virginia say self-driving cars soon will be cruising along more than 70 miles of northern Virginia highways.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute will oversee the research on portions of Interstates 95, 495 and 66 as well as on U.S. 29 and U.S. 50 that are being dubbed Virginia Automated Corridors.

Test tracks at the institute's Smart Road in Montgomery County and the Virginia International Raceway in Halifax County will be used to certify technology as safe before the cars are allowed on the highway, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Virginia is joining California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida and Washington, D.C., as the first areas in the U.S. to allow the testing of fully automated cars on public roads. The cars still will be required to have a driver at the wheel to take over in case there's a computer malfunction.

According to the Times-Dispatch, Virginia hopes to set itself apart from other states by making it easier for manufacturers to test their technologies. "Other states are saying you need to prove that independently you can do all this testing. What we are trying to do is show them how to do the testing and how to facilitate the process as well," said Myra Blanco, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute's Center for Automated Vehicle Systems.

It's too soon to say which manufacturers might be involved, but she expects self-driving cars on Virginia highways within a year. The Virginia Department of Transportation and Department of Motor Vehicles are partners in the initiative, as well as Nokia's HERE, which is developing precision 3D mapping that will allow the cars to recognize their lane positioning while also providing real-time information such as traffic conditions.

Virginia also will be making a commitment to providing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and even high-speed testing, though the latter will be on a closed track rather than out in public, according to SlashGear.

All of this comes as U.S. security firms, like Mission Secure and Perrone Robotics, warn that the same systems designed to make cars safer could end up leaving them vulnerable to hacker attacks through wireless connections, Business Insider reports.

The two security companies, which are working with the University of Virginia and the Pentagon, have run tests showing it is possible to hack into and disrupt a multi-sensor system. The companies also are working on a system to counter cyber attacks.

Last week, Google's head of Google X shared some of the lessons the company has learned driving autonomous cars in California. Google equipped vehicles with cameras and gave them to some Googlers for commuting to work. The cars "performed flawlessly" while the people did not. The tests showed that when people think the car's "mostly got it covered," they don't pay attention. That led Google X to consider designing cars without steering wheels so that it's clear the computer is driving, not a person.

As part of its testing, Google has thrown objects and scenarios in front of the cars to see how they will react in unpredictable circumstances. Tests this summer also will involve smaller cars driving on city streets.

For more:
- see the Richmond Times-Dispatch story
- see this SlashGear article
- see this Business Insider story
- see the Virginia Tech post

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