Driverless cars might soon be ready for mass production, holding the potential to ease the nation’s traffic problems and save lives.
Companies such as Google are racing to develop prototypes of cars that can drive themselves, and argue that the computerized vehicles will have a host of benefits for the country.
But lawmakers on Capitol Hill have raised concerns about allowing the vehicles on the roadways before the implications of the technology are fully known.
“It's hard for me to fathom a car in New York City being without a driver,” Rep. Albio Sires (D-N.J.) said during a hearing on driverless autos in November 2013. “I mean, it's hard enough with a driver. So, you know, trying to visualize this is very difficult.”
Sires also 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,” he 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.”
Despite the apprehension, driverless autos have won support from high-profile transportation officials, including House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).
Shuster called driverless autos “the future of transportation” after taking a test drive last year.
"This technology has significant potential to make transportation safer and more efficient," Shuster said in a statement after his hands-free ride. "We have to figure out how to embrace technology, in the way we build our infrastructure, comply with existing and future laws, and ensure the safety of the public," he continued.
Other prominent politicians, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), have praised the technology.
Gingrich referred to autonomous cars as "the greatest breakthrough in automobiles since the internal combustion engine" in his 2013 book Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate.
"Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Audi and Volvo have all demonstrated prototype self-driving cars of some capacity, although none seems to have matched Google's performance," the former Speaker wrote. "One thing is certain: now that [Google Vice President Sebastian] Thrun and his fellow pioneers have created the technology, Americans are going to want it — from whatever manufacturer can provide."
Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank said the mix of apprehension and excitement that lawmakers have expressed about driverless cars is appropriate.
“This is a technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives and transform transportation,” Schank said, adding, “an element of caution is necessary.”
“We have to be able to figure out how to regulate these things,” he said.
“The big issue is liability. Right now, if you’re in accident, either you or the other driver is going to be liable. Sometimes as we’ve seen lately, it’s the manufacturer.”
The liability for an accident is no longer clear-cut when computers are operating cars.
“Those issues have to be cleared up before [autonomous vehicles] can hit the road because we have to be able to insure them,” Schank said.
Before driverless cars reach the mass production level, Congress has to decide what role — if any — the government should play in their development.
Supporters of a quick switch to autonomous vehicles have argued that government should get out of the way, and note that Google and other private companies have conducted the most effective tests of driverless cars.
“Let the market work,” General Motors Vice President of Sustainability and Global Regulatory Affairs Mike Robinson said during the November hearing. “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.” Robinson might have a tougher time making that argument now that GM has recalled more than 5 million of its vehicles, drawing the ire of members of both parties in Congress who say safety concerns were swept under the rug.
Schank said the skepticism of driverless autos in Washington was likely to continue until they reach a level of mass acceptance with drivers.
“There’s always an element of fear when there’s a new technological change,” Schank said. “Hopefully elected officials won’t stand in the way.”
Schank said it would be hard for lawmakers to quash the anticipation that has built up for driverless cars in the long run.
“This technology is so exciting and the benefits are so large, I think it will be hard to stand in the way of it,” he said.
Schank’s organization has predicted that it will only be a couple of years before driverless cars will be available for purchase, if the regulatory challenges are all sorted out. It might be longer before the vehicles are in wide use.
“By the end of the decade, we expect autonomous vehicles to be commercially available,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll have any market penetration though. It’s hard to predict when the costs will decrease, and the costs have to decrease so they can be mass produced and you can have economies of scale.”