Dream machines: autonomous technology revving up in Fairfax County

At the Northern Virginia Technology Council’s Autonomous Technology Summit last week, experts across sectors gathered to share ideas and discuss the opportunities, challenges and impacts of autonomous technology. Virginia, and Northern Virginia in particular, are developing an ecosystem across the commercial, defense, academic, and financial sectors to spur the growth of autonomous technology and systems and support services.

And then some news broke: Dominion Energy announced that it selected the company and vehicle it will use for autonomous electric shuttle pilot project planned for the Merrifield area. Dominion said it chose the EZ10 self-driving vehicle produced by EasyMile, a French company, to shuttle passengers between the Dunn Loring Metro Station and the Mosaic District.

The EZ10 model has a track record of more than 200 deployments on public and private roads in more than 25 countries on four continents. The shuttle for this pilot project will hold up to 12 passengers, feature a full set of sensors for safety, and feature a built-in, automated electric wheelchair access ramp.

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors approved the pilot project last June, and the county secured a $250,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation for this effort, making this pilot the first state-funded autonomous public transportation demonstration project in Virginia.

The goal of the pilot is for the county and Dominion to learn about the various aspects of deploying autonomous vehicles as part of a large public transportation system. County officials aim to be at the forefront of innovation by testing this smart technology for economic and environmental benefits, operational efficiencies and as a first- and last-mile-travel option connecting people from Metrorail stations to employment, activity centers and residential communities.

As explored at the NVTC summit, autonomous technology promises new ways of performing routine activities. Dominion Energy is an energy company, providing electricity to much of Virginia, but the company wants to be a driver of change, particularly with electricity-powered vehicles.

Julie Manzari, an innovation strategist at Dominion Energy, talks about Dominion’s autonomous vehicle initiative and why the utility company chose to partner with Fairfax County for this project.

Also on the agenda at the summit was drone technology, another area in which Fairfax County is taking a leadership position. Roy Shrout, deputy coordinator of the Fairfax County Office of Emergency Management, highlighted the importance and effectiveness of drone technology for advancing public safety as a top priority for the county.

Shrout discussed the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program that the county Board of Supervisors approved in May especially for the Fire and Rescue Department, Office of Emergency Management, Police Department and Sheriff’s Office. These agencies envision drones helping with search and rescue situations, pre- and post-disaster assessments, situational awareness, fire scene management, and traffic and crash management.

“A lot of people don’t realize that public safety has had more impact on the effectiveness of drones than any other thing,” Shrout said. “In Fairfax County, the UAS program provides an enhanced level of safety and situational awareness for first responders, along with imagery and data that make using UAS technology not only effective, but responsive and transparent for the public.”