House Transportation Chairman Bill Shuster touted the virtues of driverless vehicles Tuesday morning in front of the Capitol, offering fellow House members rides in Carnegie Mellon University’s prototype autonomous car.
Although not commenting on attempts to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, Shuster promised that “we’re going to do a long-term surface transportation bill here in the near future” and that bill, he said, must include a title dealing with innovation and technology.
Showing up to support the Carnegie Mellon effort, acting Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy Peter Rogoff told reporters that safety was a compelling reason to promote autonomous vehicles.
“I have an 82-year old mother that’s still driving in the roads. I’m not sure should be. But I would sleep a lot more comfortably thinking that she was in a vehicle that was detecting every vehicle around her and was stopping that vehicle sooner than maybe she is with her 82-year old reflexes,” he said.
Then he added, “I’m hoping she’s not going to see this press availability.”
Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican, said, “I’m 53 years old and I think people about 50 and older are leery of technology” but his son and daughter, who are in their 20s, “fully embrace the technology. So I think it’s a generational thing and these cars aren’t going to be in mass quantities on the road I’m told for 15 or 20 years…. So as society moves on they’ll accept these vehicles.”
Shuster said his 22-year old son recently moved to Stamford, Conn. “Not only is his father chairman of the Transportation Committee, but his grandfather [was] and I was an auto dealer,” Shuster noted. Last year his son wanted to sell his car, deciding he did not need one because he uses public transportation. “There’s a generational move” away from car ownership, the lawmaker said.
When this reporter asked “did you disown him?” Shuster replied, “Absolutely not. He’s a smart kid” who was a finance major “and he worked the numbers” and concluded he could get a better apartment if he didn’t have to make car payments.
As Rogoff did, Shuster stressed the safety benefits of driverless driving. “I believe this car is going to reduce fatalities, because 93 percent of the crashes that occur are driver control errors…. There’s going to be a tremendous decrease in fatalities, I believe, and a tremendous decrease in accidents.”
And Shuster said the driverless car “will bring back courtesy to our roads… and if you ever travel in the D.C. traffic, you know what I’m talking about.” (Reps. Bob Gibbs and Larry Bucshon are holding their own media event on driverless cars on Wednesday at 2 p.m. on Facebook.)
How soon will autonomous cars become a normal feature of transportation? According to John Dolan, who is principal systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, “our estimate would be that we could achieve something pretty close to full autonomy somewhere in the 2020s. How rapidly it would be introduced I’m not sure.”
Initially the additional cost would be $5,000 to $15,000 on top of the regular list price of a high-end car, he said. “Those who were able to afford it would do it, and then that would increase acceptance and hopefully that would increase market share.”
The vehicle was developed by a team headed by Carnegie Mellon electrical and computer engineering professor Raj Rajkumar.
The three main sources of funding for the Carnegie Mellon project are General Motors which contributes about $1 million a year, the Department of Transportation with another $1 million a year, and the National Science Foundation with about $800,000 annually.
The Container covers the transportation community in Washington.
Tom Curry (@TCurry_Himself) writes for The Container. He has been a national affairs reporter and editor for nearly two decades, having covered elections, Supreme Court nominations, fiscal policy and the health care debate.
Joe Warminsky is managing editor of CQ Weekly magazine and editor of The Container.