— -- Lawmakers debated the safety and regulatory future of self-driving cars today and vowed that the U.S. would lead the world in automated vehicle technology.
Executives at General Motors and Google X testified that safety is a top priority as the technology for self-driving cars advances.
Chris Urmson, director of Google X's self-driving car project, argues that these cars are important, serving in-need communities, such as drivers with disabilities. He urged Congress to give Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx authority to approve new technologies that may improve road safety when it comes to distracted driving.
Urmson explained that Google is working closely with Foxx's team and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about regulation of these vehicles.
"When we look at the 38,000 people that NHTSA estimates were killed last year on America's roads, it's really an unacceptable status quo," Urmson said. "And there's so much opportunity to do good here. Now the technology will never be perfect, but the opportunity to reduce those accidents and those tragedies is incredible."
Lawmakers were able to test various self-driving cars ahead of the Senate hearing. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, detailed his ride in a Tesla Model S with "autopilot."
"I’m in the Tesla and we’re coming back across the Anacostia River and getting up on the bridge to get onto the ramp on 395," Nelson recalled. "And I’m instructed, in the driver’s seat, 'Engage the autonomous switch.' I click it twice. 'Take your hands off the wheel.' So all of a sudden, the car is speeding up, and they say it automatically will go with the flow of the vehicles in the front and back. But now we are approaching the ramp and it is a sharp turn, and the vehicle is still speeding up. And they said, 'Trust the vehicle.'"
He continued: "As we approach the concrete wall, my instincts could not resist. And I grabbed the wheel, touched the brake and took over manual control."
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, also spent about 45 minutes driving around the district in an autonomous car.
“The sky seems to be the limit so to speak, when it comes to what we can do with this,” Thune said at the hearing.
Mary Cummings, Duke University's director of Humans and Autonomy Lab and Duke Robotics, whose specialty is human error, testified about the problems about self-driving cars, like hacking and extreme conditions. She explained that someone with malicious intent or seeking thrills can already use a $60 device to interrupt the GPS in a car. Cummings urged the NHTSA for "much stronger leadership" in this space.
Cummings said the introduction of more autonomy could increase more distractions on the road.
"If humans just think the car is just pretty good, then their behavior is going to be even worse. The best thing that we could do is for everyone to get out of their cars today and have them all be driver-less with no steering wheels tomorrow," she said. "That would be the safest thing that we can to do. But until then, when we have gremlins on the same road as the Teslas on the same road as the no-steering wheel Google car, we're going to have to be really careful how we set up that human autonomy interaction."
Urmson responded, "It really comes down to the fact that, at some point, the automation technologies are so good that people overtrust it, even though when people are told they shouldn't and have to be there."
The reality of driver-less cars on the road will depend on the development of the technology and collaboration with lawmakers. GM and Lyft recently announced a rental program for new Lyft drivers with the goal of creating a driver-less network of cars.
Joseph Okpaku, Lyft's vice president of government relations, said he believes the ride-sharing company would help the public become comfortable with self-driving cars in the same way customers have become comfortable with riding in a stranger's car.