Four years ago today, one of the strangest stories in Arlington history played out.
It was a slow Thursday in August when an ARLnow editor was on the phone while walking around Clarendon, where our offices were located at the time. Along Wilson Blvd, next to the Metro station, an odd sight caught his attention: a van with rhythmic blinking lights at the top of the windshield.
As it drove by, there was something missing — a driver.
Quickly the editor apologized to the person on the other end of the phone call, hung up, and took a series of cell phone videos. Published that night, the video would end up making regional and even national news.
“A mysterious, seemingly driverless van was spotted cruising the streets of Arlington’s Courthouse and Clarendon neighborhoods Thursday evening,” we reported that night. “The unmarked gray van with Virginia license plates drove up and down Wilson and Clarendon Blvds more than a half dozen times — with no one in the driver’s seat or passenger seat. The rear windows of the Ford Transit Connect van were darkly tinted.”
“The van appeared to drive cautiously but keep up with traffic. Cameras and a light bar could be seen behind the windshield,” the article continued. “The lack of a driver went mostly unnoticed as Clarendon residents went around their after-work routines near the Metro station, though occasionally people could be seen pointing at the car or asking someone nearby if they saw a driver.”
Arlington County, Arlington County police, VDOT and the Federal Highway Administration told us they had no knowledge of any autonomous vehicle testing in the area. It remained a mystery for several days, with many wondering whether autonomous vehicle technology had advanced to the point where a van could safely drive itself in circles around a densely populated area.
Then, an unexpected revelation and some made-for-TV theatrics helped the story attain even greater fame. NBC 4’s Adam Tuss, after leaving an interview at ARLnow’s offices the following Monday, spotted the van, peered inside and found… arms and legs.
“Brother, who are you? What are you doing? I’m with the news, dude,” Tuss said. “Dude, can you pull over and we can talk for a second?”
— Adam Tuss (@AdamTuss) August 7, 2017
As it turns out, the “driverless” car was actually an experiment run by Virginia Tech and Ford to see how people reacted when they saw a car with no one in the driver’s seat.
In reality, the driver was disguised as a car seat. The university admitted its role after Tuss’ tweet went viral.
Ford said the light bar in the van was intended as a way to communicate the car’s intentions to pedestrians.
“Anyone who has crossed a busy street likely knows the informal language between pedestrians and drivers,” [Ford researcher John] Shutko wrote. “A driver might wave her hand to indicate to the pedestrian it’s okay to cross, or a pedestrian could throw up his hand like a stop sign to signal he plans to cross first. But what happens in the future, when self-driving vehicles operate without drivers - and in some cases, without anyone even in the vehicle itself?”
After being first reported by ARLnow.com, and famously further investigated by NBC4 reporter Adam Tuss — who was startled to discover a person in a seat costume inside — VT admitted it was behind the driverless car.
Ford said people are put in the cars — and dressed as car seats — for safety reasons, as self-driving technology is still in the early stages of testing and development.
And if not for some meddling reporters, the experiment might have been able to continue to roam Arlington streets and startle pedestrians for a bit longer. Without the mystery and the “news dude” moment, however, the story would not have been nearly as memorable.
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The Arlington-Aachen High School exchange is returning this summer and currently accepting applicants.
The sister-city partnership started in 1993 by the Arlington Sister Cities Association, which seeks to promote Arlington’s international profile through a variety of exchanges in education, commerce, culture and the arts. The exchange, scheduled June 17th to July 4th, includes a two-week homestay in Aachen plus three days in Berlin. Knowledge of the German language is not required for the trip.
Former participants have this to say:
_”The Aachen exchange was an eye-opening experience where I was fully immersed in the life of a German student. I loved biking through the countryside to Belgium, having gelato and picnics in the town square, and hanging out with my German host student’s friends. My first time out of the country, the Aachen exchange taught me to keep an open mind, because you never know what could be a life changing experience.” – Kelly M._
Learn about the new assessment of Arlington’s urban tree canopy and the many ecological and social benefits trees provide. Staff from the Green Infrastructure Center (GIC) will share study results and compare canopy cover for different areas of Arlington.The webinar will include assessments of ecosystem services such as stormwater mitigation, air quality, carbon uptake, and urban heat islands. For background on Arlington trees see the “Tree Benefits: Growing Arlington’s Urban Forest” presentation at http://www.gicinc.org/PDFs/Presentation_TreeBenefits_Arlington.pdf.
Please register in advance to assure your place at the webinar, https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/29543206508863839.
About the Arlington County Civic Federation: The Arlington County Civic Federation (“ACCF”) is a not-for-profit corporation which provides a forum for civic groups to discuss, debate, inform, advocate and provide oversight on important community issues, on a non-partisan basis. Its members include over ninety civic groups representing a broad cross-section of the community. Communications, resolutions and feedback are regularly provided to the Arlington County Government.
The next meeting is on Tuesday, February 21,2023 at 7 pm. This meeting is open to the public and will be hybrid, in-person and virtually through Zoom. Part of the agenda will be a discussion and vote on a resolution “To Restore Public Confidence in Arlington County’s Governance”. For more information on ACCF and this meeting, go to https://www.civfed.org/.
Valentine gifts for someone special or for yourself are here at George Mason University from noon -4pm on February 14, 2023. Satisfy your sweet tooth with Kingsbury Chocolates, find a handmade bag from Karina Gaull, pick up treats from Village