Perrone Robotics soon will be programming and testing self-driving cars at its new office on the former Barnes Lumber Yard property in Crozet. By staying in Virginia, the software company will be able to continue testing automated or fully autonomous vehicles with little regulation by the state government.
Virginia, like most states, has not yet enacted any laws to restrict autonomous driving on public roads. “It’s pretty much an open playing field,” said Greg Scharer, chief operating officer of Perrone Robotics, which will soon relocate from an office on Seminole Trail. “Virginia has a ‘tabula rasa’ on [automated vehicle] legislation.”
Last year, the General Assembly passed a law that made it even easier to test self-driving cars on Virginia roads. The new law allows the human “driver” of an automated vehicle to view a factory-installed video display in the front seat while the vehicle is in operation. The law also exempts vehicles used by universities for technology research from having government license plates.
At a December meeting of the Crozet Community Advisory Committee, Scharer said Perrone Robotics’ tests in Crozet would be confined to a track made from existing roads near the former Barnes Lumber property.
In the final stages of software development, Perrone Robotics performs testing on highways throughout Virginia, including Interstate 64 and U.S. 29. Scharer said self-driving cars are manned by an engineer during all tests as an additional safety measure.
Self-driving cars already are being tested on some of Virginia’s busiest roads. In 2015, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the opening of the Virginia Automated Corridors, a 70-mile network of highways and arterial roads in Northern Virginia outfitted with high-definition mapping and data acquisition systems to support automated-vehicle testing.
The Virginia Automated Corridors are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, with support from Nokia and Transurban.
“We are continuing to look for innovative partnerships that will provide Virginia with opportunities to continue to lead in out-of-the box, futuristic approaches to solving transportation problems,” said Virginia’s assistant secretary of transportation, Ronique Day.
“Virginia’s law is simple,” said Day. “You can come here to test in a real-world environment as long as a driver is in the car. The industry can come here today without special licensing or permitting.”
California has long been the global epicenter of automated vehicle development, but new testing regulations have motivated companies such as Google and Uber to expand their self-driving car operations to other states. The new regulations also discouraged Perrone Robotics from moving to Silicon Valley, Scharer said.
Last month, Uber was forced to remove its self-driving cars from the streets of San Francisco after failing to apply for a Department of Motor Vehicles permit that would designate the cars as test vehicles.
While California, Florida and Nevada require automated-vehicle manufacturers to take out a $5 million bond or insurance policy before conducting tests on public roads, Virginia does not enforce a similar requirement.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a new policy in September that warns against “inconsistent state laws that could impede … the expeditious and widespread distribution of safety-enhancing automated-vehicle technologies.” But this guidance is not yet mandatory or binding.
“A fickle legislative environment can be a serious impediment,” said Scharer. “It can have a huge impact on costs.”
Local governments in Virginia also have played an important role in attracting and retaining automated-vehicle businesses. Perrone Robotics recently benefitted from an accelerated rezoning by Albemarle County that allowed the company to construct modular offices on the Barnes Lumber property.
Montgomery County has done much to accommodate the rapid growth of Torc Robotics, an autonomous-vehicle manufacturer in Blacksburg with about 50 employees. The Montgomery County Economic Development Authority agreed last month to fund a $200,000 interior expansion of the Torc Robotics headquarters to make room for a dozen new employees. In return, the company extended its lease in the Blacksburg Industrial Park through 2022.
Brian T. Hamilton, Montgomery County’s economic development director, said Torc Robotics’ high-paying jobs and long-term growth potential made the expansion project a worthwhile investment for the county.
Hamilton said Torc Robotics’ success could entice some of its business partners to establish offices in Montgomery County. Likewise, Scharer said that he hopes related companies will join Perrone Robotics in Crozet and form the backbone of a new “technology corridor” in Albemarle.