BLACKSBURG — Torc Robotics says a boring ride in one of its self-driving cars is exactly what it’s looking for as the company begins offering test rides for the first time.
My 20-minute trip around Blacksburg and Christiansburg was just that — of course, aside from that inescapable feeling that I was experiencing the birth of a new age of transportation.
After covering the Blacksburg-based company from the outside of its vehicles for a decade, a pair of Roanoke Times journalists were invited last week to become the first reporters to take a ride. We weren’t allowed to record video, but our experience offers a glimpse into a piece of Southwest Virginia technology that’s poised to help usher in the robot-car revolution.
Our ride began at Torc’s headquarters with the traditional signing of liability waivers. It took us through stop signs and traffic signals, across highways and roads with no lane markings whatsoever. A gold Toyota Camry cut us off and the autonomous Lexus I was in hit the brakes to avoid a wreck. It also decided on its own to overtake a slowpoke cruising down the right lane of U.S. 460.
Debris flew out of the back of a trash truck at one point, hitting the windshield and making my heart skip a beat. But Torc’s tricked-out SUV didn’t flinch.
The most noticeable anomaly was the way the steering wheel turned, with a lot of quick, deliberate adjustments instead of the sweeping turns humans tend to make. The car never entered a turn lane before the dotted line or inched forward in anticipation of a green light. It followed every rule and never crept more than 3 mph over the speed limit.
Its driving was as precise and exacting as — well — a robot.
In the end, it was an entirely uneventful 15-mile trip, just as our guide, Torc Engineering Manager Mike Avitabile, was hoping.
Torc was founded 10 years ago, partnering with Virginia Tech to build a self-driving vehicle for the Urban Challenge hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. After a surprise third-place finish, the company kept the team together and began developing autonomous systems for construction and military equipment.
Torc publicly announced its entry into the consumer vehicle industry earlier this year — an initiative dubbed Project Asimov (after science fiction author Isaac Asimov).
The 80-person company’s two self-driving Lexus RXs have been spotted all around the New River Valley since then, made conspicuous by the spinning equipment on their roofs. The cars have made cross-country trips autonomously, first from Blacksburg to the birthplace of the Model-T in Michigan and later to Seattle.
Now the cars are headed to Las Vegas, where they’ll be offering rides to journalists and industry partners at the Consumer Electronics Show.
David was the “safety driver” during our sneak peek, though the company declined to provide his last name because of privacy concerns. His job was to sit in the driver’s seat with his hands touching the wheel, but not gripping it. It slid back and forth through his palms the whole ride, so he could quickly take control in case of an emergency. That is called level four automation, when a car needs a backup driver in the seat but is mostly capable of navigating itself.
Avitabile said the Lexus has seven cameras on the roof, six radars and hidden sensors inside the front and rear bumpers in order to see in all directions.
The car watches everything happening within about 100 to 200 meters around the vehicle, processing the world in real time so it can make decisions.
When we approached a slow-moving car, for instance, the Lexus switched on its turn signal, waited for the left lane to clear and then passed. But when we approached another slow car a short time later, the Lexus realized that it wouldn’t have time to pass before its upcoming exit. So it stayed in the right lane and tapped the brakes.
Avitabile said these are the kinds of human-like decisions Torc’s team has been teaching the robots during hours of real-world experiments. Engineers try to sit down and plan as many scenarios as they can, but he said it’s impossible to predict everything until the technology gets out on the road.
The cars each collect three terabytes of data, about the equivalent of 62 days of video, during every hour of driving. Torc’s team uses that to make adjustments and inform the system for future drives.
If there’s debris on the road, the car has to figure out how large it is and decide if it’s worth avoiding. If there’s an intersection, it has to figure out if it’s a two-way or four-way stop. If the posted speed limit is too fast for a hairpin curve, the car has to decide when to slow down. If there’s an open freeway, it has to accelerate at a pace that’s comfortable for the passenger, something Avitabile called the “motion profile.”
These are the little decisions that we make every time we drive, but that can pose serious challenges to a machine.
At least during my ride, Torc’s autonomous vehicle never made a bad decision. It drove almost exactly as I would.
There was one moment when the car sensed some sort of unknown hazard. Believing it was in over its head, it made eight audible beeps and handed control over to the driver. Avitabile said it wasn’t immediately clear what went wrong, but it could have been a sensor that momentarily malfunctioned or a piece of software that froze.
The driver at that point took over for about half a mile and then slid the car back into autonomous mode. Avitiabile said his team would have to dig through the data later to figure out what went wrong.
“Continuously testing our technology and exposing it to these corner case scenarios allows us to achieve reliable safety,” Torc CEO Michael Flemming said in an email after our ride-along. “Once consumers trust autonomous systems, and safety becomes an afterthought, Torc will have accomplished its goal of a transportation revolution.”