Roll Call: Senators Let the Cars Do the Driving

A self-driving car can’t get you out of a traffic jam.

That’s something Republican Sen. John Thune learned from the passenger seat of a modified Chrysler 300c from Continental on Tuesday as the Senate Commerce Committee explored autonomous driving technology.

Once the car reached suburban Arlington, it switched into self-driving mode.

“It’s really amazing, just way more than I’ve seen or thought possible,” Thune said. “It sees things. It adjusts automatically, like there was a dump truck going by and it kind of veers over away from it.”

Thune and the Chrysler sedan left the District because local laws bar operation of automobiles in a fully autonomous mode, but the rules are different in nearby Virginia.

“That’s a good example I think of the different patchwork of state regulations and laws that exist today and that’s why I think in some ways we have to look at … what are the ways that Congress and federal agencies can work together to create and enable, you know, the further development of this,” Thune said, suggesting there need to be some uniform rules of the road across jurisdictional lines.

The ranking Democrat on Commerce, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, jumped behind the wheel of a Tesla, asking for “permission to engage” before hitting the road. A Roll Call photographer responded by wishing the former astronaut “Godspeed.”

“The computer technology here is far advanced from the 1970s-1980s vintage technology of the Space Shuttle. But, of course you’ve got two different environments that you’re engaged in,” Nelson said after driving. “This is quite super here for terrestrial transportation.”

“It’s an incredible experience as you’re barreling down the highway,” Nelson told reporters. “As I was going into a turn, and it is accelerating with my hands off … with a concrete barrier right in front with a sharp turn, it is turning but my instinct took over and I grabbed the wheel.”

Thune was also impressed. “If you think about the 38,000 fatalities that occur on America’s highways every year and how many of those could be avoided just because of inattentiveness and the mistakes the people make behaviorally when they’re driving vehicles, how much this technology could save likes,” he said. “That to me ultimately is the real goal in all this.

“I don’t want to see the feds come down with a heavy hand, but I think at least a framework where there are general rules of the road,” Thune said.

A number of other senators stopped by to try out the rides, including Democratic Sens. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Gary Peters of Michigan.
At the afternoon hearing, panelists said that one way to expose more people to the technologies more quickly would be through ride sharing services with autonomous cars, which is why Joseph Okpaku, the vice president of government relations at Lyft was among those called to testify. Okpaku warned of limitations imposed by variations in regulation from state to state.
“The worst possible scenario for the growth of autonomous vehicles is an inconsistent and conflicting patchwork of local, municipal and county laws that will hamper efforts to bring AV technology to market,” Okpaku said. “Regulations are necessary, but regulatory restraint and consistency is equally as important if we are going to allow this industry to reach its full potential.
During the hearing later, Daines asked about how the autonomous cars will help reduce collisions with animals, noting that he had taught his children not to swerve when facing a deer in the roadway.
“Deer populations are up. And out in Montana it’s not just deer. It’s also elk and moose as well. It’s a little different collision,” Daines said.
Mike Ableson, a vice president at General Motors, assured him that the cars could handle the challenge. “These autonomous vehicles use an array of sensors, not just cameras,” he said. “And between radar, LIDAR and cameras, I think the potential exists that the vehicles could be even more perceptive of when animals are present in the roadway than human beings are.”