CASEY: On the brave new road to self-driving cars ... and Rocky Mount | Local News

CASEY: On the brave new road to self-driving cars … and Rocky Mount | Local News

The first time I felt my spidey senses tingle, we had just passed Clearbrook on U.S. 220. Gary Hunt and I were heading south in a Subaru Outback approaching a twisty stretch. From the driver’s seat, he glanced over and said, “Watch this.”

Usually that two-word motto presages a bizarre and fatal disaster about to befall the latest winner of the Darwin Awards. Which is why I felt edgy.

Hunt, 72, took his hands off the steering wheel as the car accelerated. I gulped once or twice as the Outback turned itself left-right-left to negotiate the curvy highway.

“See?” he said. “I told you it drives itself.”

Next, Hunt reached into the back seat and grabbed that day’s edition of The Roanoke Times. He thumbed the pages of the Extra section to the crossword puzzle, and picked up a pencil from the center console.

“What’s a five-letter word for ‘eccentric’ that ends in a Y?” he asked.

People are also reading…

“Are you crazy?” I replied.

Carefully, he penned the corresponding letters into the puzzle blocks.

“Crazy fits,” Hunt answered. “Now, what’s a six-letter hyphenated term that begins with a ‘P’ and means highway conflagration?”

“We’re going to wind up in a pile-up if you don’t drop that damn newspaper,” I warned.

“Pile-up is perfect!” Hunt exclaimed, scribbling again.

As you’ve surely figured out by now, this was no ordinary Subaru Outback. For one thing, it had little white video cameras — a bit bigger than a golf ball — stationed strategically throughout the passenger compartment.

For another, the car had a desktop computer tower, laying on its side and bolted to the floor of the Outback’s luggage compartment.

Thirdly, for dramatic effect I’ve slightly exaggerated the crossword anecdote. For example, there was no newspaper in the car. Or crossword. (Hunt greatly prefers the daily Jumble puzzle. But it wasn’t in the Subaru either.)

The Outback, however, is for real. It kinda-sorta mostly drove itself, as I watched closely.

The majority of the time of the time, Hunt kept his palms within a couple inches of the steering wheel. The few exceptions came when he pointed to a roadside attraction, or scratched his nose. At another point, he held his hands interlaced in his lap, as if in prayer. Which was probably timely.

The car uses cameras, or RADAR, or some kind of gee-whiz technology that keeps the Subaru inside its lane of travel, even on significant curves. Not quite sure if you can buy that from a Subaru dealer right now, though. It also features adaptive cruise control, an available option on Subarus.

From a stoplight, Hunt would have to hit the gas pedal to get the car moving, but that was about it. The Outback would automatically slow or speed up to match the speed of the vehicle in front. It will not make 90-degree on-command lefts or rights. And shouting “Alexa, pull a U-turn!” results in zilch. I know because I tried.

Hunt got the Subaru on loan for six weeks from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg. It employs 300 people and is the second-largest university-level transportation research outfit of its kind in the nation.

VTTI conducts different types of driver research studies all over the place — from Washington state to Texas, to Washington, D.C., and here in Virginia. A bunch of them focus on marijuana users who drive. You can see a list of 16 different studies at www.vtti.vt.edu, and you can also apply to participate on the website.

Somehow, Hunt’s name got on a list of willing volunteers, probably when he volunteered for another Virginia Tech study years ago. And one day last fall, a researcher cold-called him and offered to pay $450 if he would drive the Subaru for six weeks.

“It was free money, with very few restrictions,” said Hunt, who’s notoriously frugal. How could he refuse?

He had to fill out a questionnaire that posed queries such as how often he used cruise control, and that sort of thing. Then they gave him the Outback with a full tank of gas. During the six-weeks he had the Subaru, he had to perform three 70-mile drives on a course outlined by VTTI personnel.

They gave him some of the money up front, and the balance when Hunt returned the Outback last week. And that was about it. Hunt said has no idea what they’re studying. And VTTI isn’t talking.

“This is an ongoing research project in the early pilot phase.” said Amy Maxey, the research assistant who pitched Hunt on participating. “So unfortunately, at this time, we cannot discuss further.”

For most of those six weeks, Hunt usually drove the car up and down Interstate 81, plus around the Roanoke Valley as needed.

But for the ride we took two weeks ago, I desired a more challenging course. U.S. 220 is narrower, punctuated with traffic signals and generally far more dangerous than a limited-access interstate. It seemed perfect.

“I am able to tell you that this is NOT a self-driving car,” Maxey also told me. Could have fooled me.

We made it to Rocky Mount without incident, then headed east on U.S. 40 over to Webster, where we visited with a friend, Donte Colie, for a while. Then it was time to leave. By the time we’d climbed back in the Subaru, I’d forgotten I’d promised Hunt I would feed him.

“Where are we going to have lunch? he asked.

How about Pizza King in Rocky Mount? I replied.

“Eh, I don’t really feel like pizza,” Hunt said.

“Perfect!” I said. “Because Pizza King doesn’t sell pizza. They sell everything else.”

But that’s probably a topic for another day.

Contact metro columnist Dan Casey at 981-3423 or dan.casey@roanoke.com.

Follow him on Twitter:

@dancaseysblog.