Lawmakers prep for coming wave of self-driving cars

Lawmakers prep for coming wave of self-driving cars
© Getty Images

Lawmakers at a hearing Wednesday grabbled with how to prepare the nation's infrastructure for the coming wave of self-driving vehicles.

The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works heard from transportation experts on the work to be done to improve both roads, broadband as well as the safety technology behind autonomous cars.

Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoCongress must finish work on popular conservation bill before time runs out Second GOP senator to quarantine after exposure to coronavirus GOP senator to quarantine after coronavirus exposure MORE (R-W.Va.) raised concerns about rural areas, where broadband internet is often spotty.


“Whenever I talk about, hear and think about autonomous vehicles I think about going up Bridge Road, which is where I live, to my house and I'm... not getting in an autonomous vehicle and doing those curves,” Capito said.

Another senator questioned how safe autonomous vehicles were from potential cyberattacks.

“Going forward, this cybersecurity protection is also going to be increasingly important because it’s a computer riding down the street,” Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John Markey3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Democrats shoot down talk of expanding Supreme Court Schumer: 'Nothing is off the table' if GOP moves forward with Ginsburg replacement MORE (D-Mass.) said. “If we don’t protect against the downside, then bad things happen.”

High on lawmakers minds were recent fatal accidents involving self-driving vehicles from Uber and Tesla.

William Panos, the director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said his state is currently leading the way in testing connection technology for autonomous vehicles.

“To improve safety along the 402 miles of Interstate 80 in Wyoming, particularly in our tough winters, Wyoming is implementing a pilot program using DSRC-enabled technology to connect vehicles to infrastructure and to other vehicles,” Panos told lawmakers.

But there are concerns about how to ensure the vehicles can correctly “read” traffic signs.

The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperThe conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons Democrat asks for probe of EPA's use of politically appointed lawyers Overnight Energy: Study links coronavirus mortality to air pollution exposure | Low-income, minority households pay more for utilities: report MORE (D-Del.), showed how easy it was to deface a stop sign to make it look like a fake speed limit sign. Carper expressed concerns that self-driving cars could read those signs incorrectly.

Lawmakers also heard from Polly Trottenberg, commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, who urged them to remember the 4.4 million Americans who make a living driving.

“All of our communities, urban and rural alike, will need to confront the potential human toll that this disruptive technology could take,” Trottenberg said. “The federal government needs to help ensure that innovation and opportunity does not mean leaving others without a livelihood.”

Experts also hailed the benefits from autonomous vehicles, including reducing traffic congestion and improving safety.

“In 2016, 37,461 people died on U.S. roads. That’s more than 100 people per day,” President and CEO of the Intelligent Transportation Society of America Shailen Bhatt said. “Pedestrian deaths in that year rose 9 percent.

“More than 90 percent of road crashes are caused in some way by human error. That is a sobering statistic but we have technologies that will make a difference.”

Bhatt also noted that the average American spends roughly 40 hours in traffic per year.

“Collectively, this drains 305 billion dollars from our economy and wastes 3.1 billion gallons of fuel,” Bhatt said.

Trottenberg echoed concerns about traffic. She emphasized the major congestion in urban areas and said self-driving cars must adopt to those challenges.

“It’s simply not realistic or feasible to expect cities to overhaul their existing roadway infrastructure to accommodate a still somewhat unproven technology,” Trottenberg said.

She also highlighted the flood of Uber and Lyft drivers in cities like New York and called for a focus on mass transportation.