Senators see ‘great potential’ in driverless car technology

"There is much to be excited about as these technologies develop," the West Virginia lawmaker continued. "But there are risks, as well as important questions. We have to ask some of them this day and discuss them."

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Rockefeller said that allowing cars to become "more computerized" came with additional risks besides the possibility of accidents.

"As our cars become more computerized and electronics-based, can the industry make sure they are reliable and prevent failures," he asked.

"And as our cars become more connected — to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure — are they at risk of catastrophic cyber-attacks?,’ said Rockefeller. “In other words, can some 14-year old in Indonesia figure out how to do this and just shut your car down…because everything is now wired up?"

The top ranking Republican on the Senate's Transportation committee, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expressed more optimism about driverless cars and other new automation technologies for vehicles.

"These technologies, which include driver-assistance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous self-drive cars offer the promise of many future benefits," Thune said Wednesday. "In addition, these technologies, many of which are being developed domestically, represent innovations that will help to drive the tech and manufacturing sectors and benefit our economy."

In particular, Thune said driverless cars could assist people with handicaps that prevent them from driving themselves, citing a YouTube video of a blind man being driven in an automated car that was developed by Google.

"Anyone who has seen the YouTube video of Steve Mahan, a blind man using Google's self-driving car to perform his daily errands around the suburbs of Morgan Hill, Calif. knows how potentially life-changing these technologies may be," he said.

Turning to Rockefeller, Thune added, "Mr. Chairman, maybe our next hearing on this subject ought to take place on a test track in West Virginia or South Dakota so we can more explore the technology of Google and others."

Automobile manufacturers have worked to convince skeptics like Rockefeller to share Thune's unabashed optimism about driverless cars and other technological advances in vehicles.

"Given that more than 90 percent of crashes result from human mistakes, the combination of emerging driver-assist features, connectivity and ultimately autonomous vehicles offer the promise of safer mobility," Automobile Manufactures President Mitch Bainwol told the panel.

Bainwol told lawmakers to not just focus on driverless cars, but consider wider technological advances for automobiles.

"We see a robust debate in the press, mostly pitting engineers, who agree with each other less often than lawyers, about when self-driving cars will become a reality," he said. "That's the wrong question. It makes safety about some magic moment in the future rather than recognizing that technologies in the marketplace today already are providing important benefits as they set the foundation for tomorrow."

Bainwol added quickly that: "Ironically, technology is not the biggest obstacle to deploying innovation."

"The bigger hurdles are: (1) Consumer acceptance, (2) product liability, (3) connectivity and (4) fleet mix concerns," Bainwol said.

Bainwol admitted that the auto industry's research on support for automated cars showed drivers shared some of Rockefeller's concerns, however.

"Our polling shows that consumers strongly equate technology with safety, and that's very promising" he said. "But at least for now, these same consumers are dubious about self-driving vehicles, splitting four-to-three against the view that autonomous vehicles are a good idea."

Bainwol attributed the poll results on driverless cars to the fact that "the driving experience is deeply ingrained, [and] non-incremental change is scary."

Rockefeller said on Wednesday he agreed that some of the changes to automobiles may be coming too fast.

"We have seen so much change in the automobile and at such a rapid clip," Rockefeller said. "It's like people are competing with each other to titillate, tantalize, and it sells. It works."