It’s clear by this point that some of the world’s most prominent tech companies are looking at the automobile industry as a ripe target for disruption. Google’s self-driving car project has earned a lot of press over the past few years; Apple is rumored to have vehicles of some sort under development; and Uber just poached most of Carnegie Mellon University’s robotics center in order to fuel its own automated-car ambitions.
If any (or all) of those companies succeed in their plans, and the public embraces the concept of allowing vehicles to drive them from Point A to B, it could create a whole new industry for developers and other tech pros. The self-driving, Web-enabled cars of the future will need apps, for example, as well as all sorts of specialized hardware.
While it’s easy to test a smartphone app or a desktop-sized piece of hardware, determining whether your automotive technology will work as expected is a whole different beast. In a bid to help Google (and presumably other companies) test out their next-generation automobiles, the state of Virginia has reportedly opened up 70 miles of highway, overseen by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), to self-driving cars.
Portions of Virginia’s highways—most notably Interstates 95 and 495—are notoriously congested, which could present any self-driving vehicles with a real challenge. The state government has stipulated that any automated car will need a human driver at the wheel to take over in case of malfunction or emergency.
California, Nevada, and a handful of other states already have roadways reserved for autonomous-car use. As one Virginia state official acknowledged to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, opening public infrastructure to new technology is seen as a way to attract top tech talent and companies. (Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. are already widely viewed as an up-and-coming tech hub, powered to a certain degree by federal money.)