Lawmakers question safety of driverless cars

Lawmakers expressed a mix of wonderment and concern about driverless cars during a hearing Tuesday to consider the ramifications of the emerging technology.

Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said that he had “so many questions” about the possibility of cars that can drive themselves being on the road with other vehicles.

“First, it's hard for me to fathom a car in New York City being without a driver,” Sires said. “I mean, it's hard enough with a driver. So, you know, trying to visualize this is very difficult.”

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Lawmakers examined the technology during a hearing of the House Transportation highways and transit subcommittee, which met Tuesday to consider the “future of autonomous vehicles” following recent testing of self-driving cars by companies like Google. 

Sires raised concerns about the impact of increasing the use of automated vehicles on mechanics.

“I used to have a '65 Mustang that I did a lot of work on,” Sires said. “I can't imagine anybody doing any work on these cars that are so sophisticated. ... I think it's just going to put people out of work.”

Auto industry officials tried to calm Sires’s fears and said the shift to driverless vehicles would be a boon to the economy.
 
“I think it's going to create jobs ultimately,” said Mike Rogers, General Motors vice president of sustainability and global regulatory affairs.

“I think all of these technologies are going to require technicians,” Rogers said. “They're going to require people capable of working on these systems. And it's different than the state we have today or with the old cars that I've worked on as well, but I think this is actually going to be a liberating thing in the final analysis.”

Other lawmakers were more optimistic about the technology's potential.

Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), the panel's chairman, said the new vehicles could "fundamentally transform transportation infrastructure as we know it."

Petri noted that the driverless cars would operate safely even when the passenger is drunk or fatigued while adjusting quickly to dangers on the roadways.

“Autonomous vehicles could significantly reduce traffic fatalities and crashes by reducing or eliminating driver error, which is a contributing factor to over 90 percent of all crashes,” Petri said.

Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) focused on the potential convenience of cars that drive themselves. 

“So I dial a number and a car shows up and I get in and I leave it wherever I got out?” Hanna asked. 

National Highway and Traffic Safety Administrator David Strickland told lawmakers that his agency was keeping a close eye on the development of the driverless cars.

“Automated driving is an exciting frontier for the industry, and we have identified three key areas for preliminary research: Human factors and human-machine interface, initial system performance requirements, and electronic control system safety,” Strickland said.

“Our research will inform agency policy decisions and assist in developing an overall set of requirements and standards for automated vehicles.”

GM's Rogers encouraged lawmakers to take a hands-off approach to regulating the fledgling autonomous car industry. 

“Let the market work,” Rogers said. “Let manufacturers, like GM, do what we do best and compete for customers with features that add real value to the drive today and to the future generations of vehicles tomorrow.” 

The reassurances were not enough for Sires, however.

“All that stuff just tells me you're going to put more people out of work,” the New Jersey lawmaker said.

“Look, I get it. It's the future,” Sires continued. “That's where we're headed. I'm ... just trying to figure out [in] the next, you know, few decades what's going to happen.”