- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2012

A pair of D.C. Council members on Thursday took a quick jaunt around the block toward the future and they like what they see.

Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, and Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, took a brief spin in Google’s self-driving car, an “engineering prototype” that could fundamentally change the way people get around on roads and highways.

The lawmakers were picked up by the car, a blue Toyota Prius, outside the technology company’s D.C. offices on New York Avenue in Northwest. They hopped in the back seat and saw, firsthand, how the car could use laser sensors, radar and GPS systems to navigate D.C. streets without incident.

“It’s precisely like driving around in any other car,” said Ms. Cheh, chairwoman of the Committee on the Environment, Public Works and Transportation.

Google employees accompanied the council members for the special test-run, including a man in the driver’s seat who must be present in case he is needed to take control of the driver’s wheel or brakes. Nevertheless, Ms. Cheh said the “driver” turned around and spoke to them throughout the trip, gesturing with his hands and proving the car really does not need a human to guide it.

Google officials declined to offer interviews, but were happy to describe the self-driving car program’s evolution since 2008. Although it is in the “beta” stage, the cars — eight in Prius form and a few that are Lexus models — have never been involved in an accident during hundreds of test runs using the computerized controls, officials said.

The company said safety will be the No. 1 benefit of the self-driving cars.

Ms. Cheh and Mr. Wells said the cars’ future applications are myriad and could change the way Americans see driving. For instance, it could cut down on the usage of cars by the average family. Instead of needing two cars, the self-driving car could drop off one family member at work and pick up another at home, they said.

“You could tell your car to go find a parking space,” Ms. Cheh said. “Is this a great country or what?”

Nevada is leading the nation in laws that govern self-driving cars. It passed legislation last year to permit testing, and last month it issued its first licenses for use on roads and highways, according to Ms. Cheh’s office.

“I think they will have a very positive reception in the District,” Ms. Cheh said, who deemed the car’s capabilities as “mind-boggling.”

Still, officials warn there is a lot to figure out. For instance, the car will stop at a red light but cannot obey a police officer that waves it on. There are also questions about how affordable self-driving cars will be and how soon they may be in widespread use.

“That’s what we’re going to find out,” Mr. Wells said.