An autonomous Lexus RX hybrid completed its 5,300-plus mile, round-trip cross-country journey at Virginia’s Executive Mansion on Wednesday afternoon.
For the bulk of the trip, the vehicle drove more than 4,300 miles autonomously.
The self-driving vehicle, programmed by Blacksburg-based Torc Robotics, started its journey July 7 in Washington, D.C., headed west to Seattle, returned east to Richmond and was greeted by Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Capitol Square.
“That was something,” McAuliffe said as he got out of the vehicle after a test ride.
“This (autonomous driving) technology is coming, and we want to be in front of it here in Virginia. We want to be the leader,” McAuliffe said.
One of the benefits of driving cross-country was testing the car in a variety of road and weather conditions, the company said.
Three certified safety drivers and one Torc engineer went on the cross-country trip. The safety drivers rotated time behind the wheel for the duration of the trip to assist the car in case of emergency.
Along the nearly three-week journey, Torc Robotics CEO and co-founder Michael Fleming said, many people photographed the vehicle, which is equipped with a large, spinning lidar (light detection and ranging) system mounted to the roof, an array of radar, video cameras and two GPS antennas. Radar systems also are hidden inside bumpers.
Inside the car, the only noticeable modification is the addition of a tablet mounted on the center console. All the car’s sensors feed data into a computer in a compartment below the trunk.
The dashboard has three indicator lights: green to let the driver know all is going well; yellow appears when the car detects a minor obstacle that the driver should know about; and red for when it’s time to hand controls back over to the driver.
This was not Torc’s first long-distance test. One of the company’s cars logged over a 1,000 miles during a round trip from its headquarters in Blacksburg to the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit — the birthplace of the Model T.
Fleming said autonomous cars will be available to the public “sooner than you think.”
“The commonwealth of Virginia is a pro-business, self-driving-friendly state,” Fleming said. “We have grown our technology here within the commonwealth.”
The business began as a startup in 2005 and developed the technology in partnership with Virginia Tech in 2007. Torc’s technology has been applied to a variety of ground vehicles, including large mining trucks and military vehicles.
“We are a company that is focused on ... the intelligence of self-driving vehicles” as opposed to building cars, Fleming said. Torc is creating the technology that would be integrated into vehicles.
McAuliffe said about 85 miles of sensors will be installed for autonomous vehicles along Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia.
However, no laws have yet been passed regarding self-driving cars.
“We did not put any regulations in ... because we don’t know what the innovation is going to do, and what we do not want to do is stifle innovation,” McAuliffe said.
“We have advanced light years over the past 3½ years” with regards to autonomous car technology, said Karen Jackson, Virginia’s secretary of technology.