Fairfax County self-driving shuttle gets OK for testing — just in time for Metro shutdown

A self-driving shuttle planned in Northern Virginia just received federal approval required to let the buses hit the road.

The small autonomous shuttle announced last year to connect the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station to the Mosaic District will be the first fully self-driving shuttle on regular public roads in Northern Virginia.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a six-month waiver for testing on Monday.

“We are excited to have the NHTSA approval and are working to finalize logistics to begin testing later this spring,” said Anna Nissine, Fairfax County Department of Transportation communications chief, in an email.

Spring testing means the vehicle will be hitting the road just as the Dunn Loring Metro closes for the summer for Metro platform and track work though.

Dominion Energy owns the shuttle, but it will be operated by Fairfax County.

Similar vehicles have run in other parts of the area, including on the military-controlled roads on base at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, and at National Harbor in Maryland.

Still, getting permission to launch the system on public roads in Fairfax has required months of work, including on signage and other safety assurances.

“It’s been interesting and challenging, and so hopefully, we’ll see that operating here shortly, only during off-peak times Monday through Thursday — very limited time frame,” Virginia Chief of Public Transportation Jennifer DeBruhl said at a Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and ITS Virginia roundtable.

Full-size autonomous bus on hold

Virginia had also hoped to launch a full-sized autonomous bus within the next couple of years, but now does not believe that is realistic here, DeBruhl revealed Wednesday.

“We’re going to push pause on this effort. We don’t feel like it’s ready,” DeBruhl said.

Virginia state officials and Hampton Roads Transit are part of a nationwide group that had been working toward the first reliable full-sized self-driving bus, and that has developed the specifications needed for an autonomous transit bus.

For now though, the bus appears to meet requirements for trips in dedicated bus lanes, such as at LA Metro, but not for use in mixed traffic on both a highway and city streets, as was planned in Hampton Roads.

Insurance costs are also an issue, since HRT was quoted a price of more than half of its total annual insurance budget just for three autonomous buses, and there are concerns that the autonomous technology would need to be updated frequently over the 10- to 14-year life span of a bus.

Since the entire plan for the buses was based on having a large enough purchase of buses to make it worthwhile for companies, it is unclear whether the nationwide project can move forward at this point to meet the latest goal of a nearly entirely autonomous 40-foot bus by 2022.

State transportation officials are due to be briefed on the issues next week.

“It’s a good idea, ahead of its time,” DeBruhl said.

Instead, the shorter pilot programs with small shuttle buses, such as the one planned in Fairfax County, provide for more testing opportunities with less risk and cost.

Driver assistance tech

Even buses that are not fully autonomous can have technology added to help with safety.

About two years of trials of blind-spot warning systems and other tools are wrapping up now that Metro and other agencies say have helped with safety.

“Technology changes really, really fast,” DeBruhl said. “It is now obsolete.”

The latest model does comply with Virginia State Police safety rules though, unlike the initial version that rolled out.

More electric buses coming

More electric buses are set to roll out in Alexandria and other parts of Virginia.

DASH is testing two companies’ vehicles, and is aiming to speed up the conversion to an all-electric fleet.

The most recent data suggest electric buses can pay for themselves in about seven years, DeBruhl said. Transit buses last up to 14 years.

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