An unmarked gray van was seen roaming the streets of Arlington, Virginia, on Aug. 3—with nobody at the wheel.
The vehicle drove up and down the same two Arlington boulevards six times, according to ARLnow. Spokespeople for Arlington County, the local police, the federal highway administration, and Virginia’s Department of Transportation had no knowledge of the vehicle testing.
No special Lidar sensors—heralded by Apple and Google as key to self-driving vehicle technology—were seen on top of the vehicle. They can normally be seen on top of self-driving cars or cars used for mapping technology, so the Arlington car sighting was considered unusual.
An article as early as 2015 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch said that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute would use designated roads with high traffic to test self-driving cars and it’s likely the tests have been going on for some time without fanfare.
“In Virginia, it’s a little bit more discreet, so companies could test in real-world environments and you wouldn’t even know, so we have some proprietary studies going that route,” ARLnow quoted a Virginia Tech researcher as saying.
“The great thing about Virginia is the fact that there’s a lot of hands-off from the government,” said Virginia Tech Transportation Institute research associate Reginald Viray told WTOP. The Institute also has a “smart road” to use for closed road transportation tests.
When the initiative first began, rules indicated that a driver still needed to be in the car undergoing testing in case of a computer malfunction. However, Virginia’s relaxed regulations—if the driverless car spotted on Arlington streets was legal—seems to have spurred new developments in the technology.
The prospect of driverless cars on the road has spurred discussion online. ARLnow’s report prompted questions in its comments section regarding who would be responsible if the car crashes while driving without a human in it. Other commenters expressed concern about these vehicles getting commandeered by hackers.
Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne has also weighed in on the issue.
“We’re going to shift from the liability being on the driver to something else. And that something else hasn’t been defined yet,” Layne told WTOP. “Is it the manufacturer of the vehicle? Is it the software manufacturer? Who is controlling the vehicle?”
Virginia has been especially welcoming to self-driving car testing. Virginia’s Department of Transportation told Business Insider there are “no laws preventing autonomous testing on roadways, or a special permitting process.”
The governor of Virginia said he wants to make Virginia “the capital of automated vehicles.”