Northern Virginia’s 1st self-driving shuttle starts testing on Fairfax Co. streets

The first electric autonomous shuttle to run on public streets in Northern Virginia is being programmed and tested in the Mosaic District of Fairfax County.

The Relay vehicle will carry a dozen passengers — riding for free — on a loop between the Dunn Loring Metro station to the popular shopping and living community in Merrifield, just outside the Capital Beltway.

The approximately 1-mile route includes navigating a traffic light on busy U.S. Route 29.

“This won’t ever get distracted,” said engineer Nathan Ramsey. “Anytime there’s chaos all around, the vehicle is still observing its environment, it’s focused on that environment, and it’s reacting to that in real time.”

relay shuttle
The electric Relay autonomous shuttle will run a loop between the Dunn Loring Metro station and the Mosaic District. (Courtesy Dominion Energy)

Peggy Fox, spokeswoman for Dominion Energy, said Tuesday engineers are mapping and programming the electric vehicle.

Testing will continue for several weeks before passengers will be accepted on the driverless shuttle.

In a video interview provided by the electric company, Ramsey said the Relay shuttle has several onboard braking system that synchronize with each other.

“LIDAR — light detection and ranging — observes the environment using infrared lasers. They fire out and hit an object, and they measure how long it took to do that,” Ramsey said.

“If somebody runs out in front of it, the vehicle will have no issues at all, stopping or slowing.”

Fairfax County, Dominion Energy, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and real estate developer EDENS coordinated to facilitate the first shuttle program to travel on public roadways in Northern Virginia.

In 2019, an autonomous public shuttle ran in a pilot program in suburban Albemarle County, in the town of Crozet.

The shuttle utilizes some technology already being used in vehicles, said Dominion Energy Innovation Team Leader Julie Manzari.

“A couple examples are the backup camera that perceives someone is behind you, and tells you to stop. Another one is the blind spot assistance that assists you to understand that someone is where you want to go [in an adjoining lane].”

Manzari said the shuttle utilizes Transit Signal Priority, or TSP, to smooth travel through traffic lights on Route 29.

“The vehicle picks up the signal timing for the light, then communicates back to the light and says ‘I’m coming through — extend the green light,’ said Manzari.

“So, it extends the green light a little bit, and that way the vehicle has a little extra time to get through the intersection.”

The pilot program aims to provide convenient transit options for shoppers, visitors, residents and businesses.

Organizers say human error causes 94% of car crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Watch Dominion’s video featuring the Relay shuttle:

Editor’s note: A similar autonomous shuttle pilot program operated in suburban Albemarle County, in 2019.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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