In late July, Torc Robotics’ Lexus RX hybrid completed an autonomous drive of more than 4,300 miles from Virginia to Seattle and then back to Richmond, where it was greeted upon its arrival by Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“I am proud to see a home-grown engineering firm develop self-driving technology and introduce it to the rest of the country on a coast-to-coast drive,” McAuliffe said. “This technology is coming, and we want to be in front of it here in Virginia. We want to be the leader.”

Governor rides in self-driving car
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe takes a ride in the Torc Robotics Lexus RX hybrid when the self-driving car completed its cross-country trek with a stop in Richmond.

Virginia plans to install about 85 miles of sensors for autonomous vehicles along Interstate 95 near the National Capitol Region. The private business Uber invested millions into a real-world test of driverless cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, over the last two years, and commercial car markers are investigating the use of automated driving systems as well.

Hokie-run, Blacksburg-based Torc is making a big splash in this world. Tech publication TechCrunch noted Torc’s arrival among the businesses offering self-driving car technology to carmakers, indicating that “this one likely has a bit more experience than most.”

Torc’s Lexus drove itself across 20 states as part of the Seattle trip. The car drove all but about 1,000 miles; occasionally one of three stand-by drivers took the wheel because of traffic obstacles or varying autonomous vehicle certification requirements in each state.

More than half of the Torc’s employees are Virginia Tech alumni, including its co-founder and CEO, Michael Fleming (mechanical engineering '02, M.S. ’03). Fleming co-founded Torc in 2005, after participating on a Virginia Tech team that won an intelligent ground vehicle competition five years in a row, as well as placing two vehicles in the top 10 among 195 entrants in the 2005 Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge.

Governor greets Michael Fleming
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe greets Michael Fleming, a Virginia Tech alumnus and co-founder and CEO of Torc Robotics.

Frustrated by seeing a recurring cycle in which students and professors grew to collaborate at a high level, only for the students to move on after graduation, Fleming remained in Blacksburg to break that pattern and continue the work.

“The autonomous vehicle team worked right beside the Baja team, right beside the sub team and the bridge team,” Fleming said. “We spent endless nights and weekends building and breaking and rebuilding things. That’s where lot of education takes place. It takes place in the classroom, too, but it’s also important for students to apply engineering know-how and for teams to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Virginia Tech and Torc have collaborated on more than $10 million worth of research and development that very well could lead to driverless cars entering the consumer market in a matter of years, not decades.

The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) also plays a significant role at the forefront of autonomous research, testing not just vehicle capacities but also the social effects of driverless cars. VTTI research on the reaction of motorists to driverless cars went viral in August, when an apparently driverless gray van drew the attention of people in Arlington, Virginia, eventually leading to a news reporter chasing the van only to discover the hidden driver through visible hands.

Virginia Tech and allied partners like Torc have only begun to scrape the surface of what’s possible.

“I’ve worked in this space for a decade,” Fleming said. “I think about self-driving impact in society every day, and I still don’t comprehend the impact it’s going to have. Who would’ve thought that we could pay our taxes, order pizza, and find a date when cell phones were first invented? Self-driving vehicles will have that similar impact.”

That potential is part of the reason why Virginia Tech named Intelligent Infrastructure for Human-Centered Communities as one of its first five Destination Areas—a topic area around which students and faculty from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines can come together to solve the world’s trickiest and most complicated problems. Self-driving cars fall under the Destination Area, as do drones and smart construction.

The university is investing $78.45 million over five years to build teaching and research capacities in ways that leverage its groundbreaking work in smart design and construction, as well as autonomous vehicles across land, air, and water. More than 80 faculty members from multiple colleges and institutes are involved in the initiative. The new investment will inject new assets into existing programs and research facilities across the Blacksburg campus and National Capital Region to create an unparalleled educational experience.

Virginia Tech President Tim Sands projects that more than than 2,000 students will be involved in intelligent infrastructure study and research by 2022. No doubt, some of them will end up at Torc after graduation.

Written by Mason Adams

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