- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The future of driving may coincide with the end of driving.

A car that drives itself came to the Capitol Hill Tuesday to take members of Congress for a ride as they decide on the future of transportation.

Rep. Bill Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, brought the car to Capitol Hill to show fellow lawmakers cutting-edge transportation technology — and the need for better roads to drive it on.

“This technology is coming to the streets,” said Mr. Shuster, standing in front of the self-driving car Tuesday morning by the U.S. Capitol Reflecting Pool before the test rides began.

The “autonomous” 2011 Cadillac SRX developed by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University looks like an ordinary car but is equipped with software and sensors that allow it to navigate traffic without the help of a human driver.

The route driven Tuesday included multilane traffic, intersections, traffic lights, lane changes and highway travel. Though the driving was entirely controlled by the car’s software system, a member of the CMU team remained in the driver’s seat at all times ready to take over if any dangerous or unexpected situations arose. Researchers project that the likelihood of a fully autonomous car requiring no input from a driver will not be ready for the mass market before 2030, but that the potential market is huge.

SEE ALSO: Driverless car market worth $87 billion by 2030

According to last month’s report from Lux Research, major companies — including Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Ford — have already started investing heavily in the driverless future. The report suggested that cars with self-driving features will represent an $87 billion global industry by 2030. It estimated that China would lead financially with $24 billion in annual revenue by 2030 from the autonomous car industry and the U.S. following in second with $21 billion annually.

Adjusting to this new technology is going to be a step-by-step process, but many cars already come equipped with optional automated systems such as cruise control and lane departure warnings. Judging by the technology developed by CMU, the transition to fully automated cars may not be too far in the future, and may in fact be safer than having a human driver prone to road-rage and distractions.

One goal of the driverless car is to increase safety and efficiency of transportation for a growing elderly population.

With 32,000 fatal car crashes in 2011, 93 percent of which caused by driver control errors, the hope is that driverless cars could eliminate the human error as a factor and decrease the number of fatal accidents.

Acting Undersecretary of Transportation for Policy Peter Rogoff said autonomous cars could prove a boon for the elderly.

“I have an 82-year old mother who is still driving in the roads,” he said. “I’m not sure she 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 [could] with her 82-year-old reflexes.”

SEE ALSO: Driverless cars move to realm of reality

Buses and transit systems would also benefit from the technology, potentially leading to less reliance on having a personal car and saving car owners approximately $10,000 each year on car-related costs.

Mr. Rogoff said that the nation is underprepared for growth in freight transportation and an increase in population. “We could allow that growth to overwhelm us, or we can plan for it.”

Currently, the state of Pennsylvania has asked Pittsburgh-based Carnegie-Mellon to conduct research to determine how roads can be adapted for the future of autonomous vehicle travel. Other major players, notably Google, are experimenting intensively with the concept.

While the federal government will need to be won over before these cars can be mass-produced and deployed on the roads, Mr. Shuster believes that decisions “will be driven by the states.”

• Nicole Krug can be reached at nkrug@washingtontimes.com.

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