Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is already seeing results of his new executive order that encourages self-driving technology testing.
Torc Robotics, a Virginia Tech spinout developing autonomous vehicle technology, just completed a six-day 2,500-mile cross-country trip with its autonomous car that arrived in Seattle on Thursday.
It’s the first certified autonomous vehicle pilot test in Washington since Inslee signed the order last month. Torc was the first company that registered with the state’s new Autonomous Vehicle Pilot Program permit to test its self-driving car in Washington.
“I want to congratulate Torc Robotics on their cross-country autonomous vehicle trip and welcome them to our state,” Inslee said in a statement. “Washington is already a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, and these early tests demonstrate how AVs could help save lives, improve mobility and be an important tool in our efforts to combat climate change.”
Torc Robotics has spent the past decade working on self-driving technology, but only recently began testing a consumer-grade vehicle. Michael Fleming, Torc co-founder and CEO, told GeekWire that his company picked Seattle as a destination because of the executive order.
“We are really excited about Washington’s stance on being a self-driving friendly state,” he said.
Fleming said the trip, which took the vehicle across 13 states and was monitored by Torc engineers inside the car, went smoothly. The car navigated itself through heavy traffic in Washington D.C.; a highway detour in heavy rain on winding West Virginia roads; and even the horrible Seattle congestion. It also avoided tire pieces and performed left lane merges.
“In the worst of the West Virginia downpour, the car could see better than we could,” one of Torc’s safety drivers who participated in the trip said in a statement.
For those that haven’t been inside a self-driving vehicle, Fleming said people will typically feel nervous at first but then realize how erratic human drivers are compared to the smoothness and predictability of an autonomous vehicle.
“It shows the need for this self-driving technology to be commercialized sooner rather than later,” Fleming noted.
He also said people quickly get bored when they start riding in a self-driving car.
“As folks become bored on these trips, it frees up time to do other things,” Fleming said. “We are all limited by 24 hours — if we can free up 45 minutes on a commute, whether through rest or reading a book or talking to a friend or paying bills, we think that’s positive.”
Torc, which completed a similar trip earlier this year from its headquarters in Virginia to Detroit and will drive the vehicle in Seattle back to Washington D.C. next week, plans to partner with other companies more focused on the hardware aspect of autonomous vehicles as it continues to develop its own software.
“We are big believers that software drives hardware and hardware drives software,” he said. “Through the partnership model, we believe that in time we will converge on an optimal solution that can be commercially deployed.”
Fleming added that high levels of self-driving automation “are coming sooner than most people believe.”
Fleming said that given the Seattle region’s robust tech ecosystem, it makes sense for lawmakers to allow developers both large and small to safely test self-driving vehicles on public roads.
The executive order was put in place to encourage pilot tests of autonomous vehicles on Washington roads. It also established a working group to help ensure autonomous vehicle developers are supported by the state.
There are more than 20 Washington-based companies that are developing technology with possible uses in autonomous vehicles. Google has already tested some of its automated vehicles in Kirkland, Wash., where the company has a large engineering office. The governor’s office said today that Google has successfully tested its self-driving cars without incident for the past year.