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UVa event aims to kickstart planning for Charlottesville’s “Driverless Future”
Perrone Robotics Car @ UVa, Sept. 2017
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Photo courtesy of Perrone Robotics
Crozet software company Perrone Robotics will bring several self-driving cars to "The Driverless Future", an event at UVa on Sept. 30.
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Josh Mandell | Saturday, September 23, 2017 at 5:41 p.m.

The University of Virginia will host Gov. Terry McAuliffe and numerous transportation experts on Sept. 30 for a discussion about how autonomous vehicles will transform Charlottesville and other small and mid-sized cities.

“The Driverless Future: Asking the Big Questions” is being organized by UVa, Charlottesville and the new Virginia Autonomous Systems Center of Excellence.

“I hope it really starts a conversation with people in Charlottesville and across the commonwealth about what this massive technological change could mean for everyone’s lives,” said Andrew Mondschein, an assistant professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at UVa. “Hopefully, by working together, we can paint the broadest picture possible and imagine the possibilities.”

Louis Nelson, UVa associate provost for outreach, said collaboration and planning will be necessary to ensure that people with the greatest need for transportation assistance — such as single parents and the elderly — will benefit from self-driving cars.

“This event is really about recognizing that this is an inevitable future, but not an inevitable good,” Nelson said.

The event emerged out of conversations with Charlottesville Mayor Mike Signer, City Manager Maurice Jones and Paul Perrone, founder of Perrone Robotics in Crozet, Nelson said.

“The advent of this new technological era will change the way we live and the way we work, and we have a collective responsibility to ensure that all of our citizens are prepared and positioned to thrive,” Signer said in a statement.

“Most research on self-driving cars is centered in major cities,” Nelson said. “There hasn’t yet been much research on what the future of smaller cities like Charlottesville will look like. This is a chance to move it forward.”

Signer and McAuliffe will speak during a lunch break at the event. Perrone Robotics will have several autonomous vehicles driving nearby throughout the day on a closed loop.

Among the experts participating are Virginia Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson and David Strickland, a former director of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Strickland currently serves as counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, formed by Ford, Volvo Cars, Lyft, Uber and Waymo to lobby for a national policy framework supporting self-driving vehicles.

Along with policy directors from Lyft and Uber, Strickland will discuss the economic implications of driverless vehicles.

“Uber and Lyft both have remarkably innovative business structures,” Nelson said.  “It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about how this self-driving future might catalyze new innovation.”

Six UVa faculty members studying transportation issues will share findings from their research.

Mondschein is interviewing transportation experts to develop guidelines for cities to modify their pedestrian and bicycle networks as they transition to an automated vehicle fleet.

“Autonomous vehicles are already better at ‘seeing’ pedestrians and bicycles than human drivers, so there is real potential here to improve the safety and quality of city streets,” he said. “But will people feel secure that [autonomous vehicles] really will stop for them? It’s a psychological question, but it is also a question of policy and design.”

The federal government has so far taken a hands-off approach to regulating autonomous transportation, Mondschein said.

“It’s up to states — and cities within their jurisdiction — to set the policies that we need to have livable streets,” he said. “Cities really have to grab the opportunity.”

T. Donna Chen, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UVa, has simulated the logistical and economic impacts of a shared autonomous electric vehicle fleet on large cities like Seattle and Austin, Texas.

Along with the immediate reduction of traffic, Chen said, self-driving cars also have implications for urban land use.

“Today we have huge parking lots full of cars, waiting for people to use them,” she said. “If self-driving cars are constantly moving and picking up folks, there is less need for parking infrastructure.”

Charlottesville is a good setting for autonomous vehicle research due to its small land area, high density and relative isolation from larger cities, Chen said. The city already has been providing UVa researchers with transportation data.

“As citizens, we need to be more open about the idea of sharing data, participating in pilots and experiments and giving feedback,” Chen said. “Researchers can propose a lot of different things, but we can’t evaluate them until we have the data.”

Mondschein said other UVa faculty are studying the potential effects of autonomous transportation on employment, housing and environmental sustainability.

“At UVa, we are interested in not only the technology, but also its long-term impact on society,” he said. “The issues facing Charlottesville are really the issues of the rest of the country. They are just brought into focus in a small place.”

The events runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 30. Lunch will be served at noon. The discussions will take place at the Abbott Center at the Darden School of Business.

The event is free, but attendees are required to register in advance at provost.virginia.edu/academic-outreach/driverless-future-program-schedule.

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