No driver? No problem. Members of Congress got the unique chance this morning to ride around the nation's capital in a prototype driverless car from Carnegie Mellon University.
"Who would have ever thought we'd be sitting here talking about autonomous vehicles" near Capitol Hill, asked Bill Shuster, R-Pa., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "George Jetson may be a reality."
Driverless cars could be seen on U.S. roads with in the next decade and Shuster stressed the importance of continuing to fund and promote innovative transportation solutions. Today's vehicle, a retrofitted 2011 Cadillac SRX, is equipped with sensors and lasers that monitor traffic patterns and communicate electronically with other vehicles. The car has an electronic "brain" in the trunk where one would normally keep a spare tire. This technology could reduce traffic accidents, said Shuster during a press conference.
"I believe this car is going to reduce fatalities because 93 percent of the crashes that occur are driver control errors," said Shuster. Rear-end crashes account for the majority of accidents. "32,000 fatalities on the road a year, hundreds of billions of dollars in accidents and people. It will reduce that significantly," he said.
The technology may also ease congestion as cars communicate with each other about traffic conditions, lane merges and braking.
"I like to say it will bring back courtesy to the roads," said Shuster.
As the population continues to grow, this technology could prove valuable in combating worsening traffic conditions.
"This isn't just about convenience for the passenger. This is about how we get more productivity so when we have 100 million more people by 2050 we're not all choking on congestion," said Peter Rogoff, acting under secretary of Transportation for Policy for the administration.
The driverless car went on a trip through the streets of Washington, D.C., from Capitol Hill, down major roads to the Pentagon, and back. A driver was present in case there was an issue but the car ran smoothly.
At first the passengers were leery about the ride, constantly checking the dials and the wheel, said Rogoff. "By the time we were in it for 10 minutes we were just chatting it up and checking our email," seemingly unaware there was no driver, he said.
The vehicle was funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Deputy Director Cora Marrett said partnerships and support for innovative technology is essential to ensure continued research and implementation.
While the technology is not ready for consumers, Shuster told drivers to watch out. Quoting the Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation Shuster said, "It can take four guys and four sets of golf clubs out to the golf course. So this car looks like it's ready to go."