GM, Google press U.S. to open way for driverless cars

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — General Motors and Google pushed Congress on Tuesday to steer toward a future of self-driving cars by preventing states from enacting bans on the technology while it is still in its infancy.

Chris Urmson, Google X director of self-driving cars, warned of a “growing patchwork of state laws and regulations on self-driving cars that has the potential to become unworkable.” He said California and other states have moved to enact restrictions on testing on public streets.

“In the past two years, 23 states have introduced 53 pieces of legislation that affect autonomous vehicles, all of which include different approaches and concepts,” he said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington.

“If every state is left to go its own way, it would be extremely impractical to operate self-driving vehicles across state boundaries,” he continued.

Urmson told lawmakers that Google is further along in its testing of autonomous vehicles than federal officials in creating a framework for regulating the technology on a broad scale.

“We’re now testing self-driving prototype vehicles in three different states, and over the last seven years, we’ve driven over 1.4 million miles in autonomous mode,” he said. “All our testing using real complex scenarios helps us analyze, evaluate and improve how our cars perform.”

Urmson said self-driving cars could greatly boost the safety of U.S. roadways, although a recent fender-bender between one of the company’s autonomous cars and a bus has raised questions about fully autonomous operation.

Mike Ableson, GM’s vice president of strategy and global portfolio planning, told lawmakers that GM has been moving forward in the autonomous vehicle sector. He cited GM’s recent acquisition of Cruise Automation, which develops software for self-driving cars.

“Many of today’s active safety technologies, such as full-speed range adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist, are steps towards autonomous driving,” he said. “We are deploying these technologies across more of our portfolio and are also bringing additional safety-enhancing technologies like forward-collision warning to vehicles at all price points, including inexpensive models such as the Chevrolet Spark.”

Ableson said GM expects to be the first automaker to bring dedicated short-range communications — a vehicle-to-vehicle safety technology — to market late this year in the 2017 Cadillac CTS.

Lawmakers on the Senate committee indicated they are open to the concept of allowing self-driving cars on U.S. roadways, citing potential safety and convenience improvements.

“In 2014, 32,675 Americans lost their lives due to car accidents. More than 90 percent of these tragedies are linked to human error — driver choices, intoxication and distraction,” Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at the start of Tuesday’s hearing.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to reduce that number dramatically.”

Democrats on the panel said they are excited about the potential benefits of self-driving vehicles, although they warned that the industry would have to be closely watched.

“We know if this is working as it apparently is, then there are going to be many lives that are going to be saved by preventing preventable accidents,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, the top-ranking Democrat on the panel, said after recounting a recent ride in an autonomous vehicle in which he had to take control.

“But we have to have the technology right so the self-driving cars can live up to their promise,” he added. “As we have seen in this committee on other subjects, such as the Takata air bags and the GM ignition switch recall, individual components of vehicles with defects can suddenly snowball into major problems. So with an autonomous car, the stakes are all the more going to be high.”

Nelson added that it will also be important to protect autonomous vehicles from potential cyber attacks in an era where automated systems are increasingly seen as being vulnerable.

“Imagine what would happen to autonomous vehicles to get hacked while they’re out on the road,” he said. “One small defect could end up in a massive safety crisis.”

Missy Cummings, from Duke University’s autonomy and robotics lab, sounded a cautionary note. She warned that boosters of the technology are exaggerating its readiness for widespread expansion.

“While I enthusiastically support the research and development of self-driving cars, I’m less optimistic about what I perceive to be a rush to field systems that are absolutely not ready for widespread deployment,” she said.

“In my opinion, the self-driving car community is deficient in its testing programs with no leadership — that should be provided by NHTSA,” Cummings continued.

“Google X ... has advertised that its cars have driven 1.4 million miles, and I applaud this achievement,” she said. “But New York taxi cabs drive 1.4 million miles in just a little over a day. This assertion is indicative of a larger problem in robotics, in self-driving cars and drones ... where demonstrations are substituted for principled testing.”

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