Google Says Self-Driving Cars May Cut Need for Transit, Roads

  • Company to testify at U.S. Senate hearing on autonomous cars
  • Technology seen as improving safety, reducing parking needs

Google to Testify at Senate on Driverless Cars

Self-driving cars may revolutionize U.S. transportation enough so that the government can spend less money on roads, parking garages and public transportation systems, a Google Inc. executive is scheduled to tell senators Tuesday.

“Congress has a huge opportunity to further this field by enabling the U.S. Department of Transportation to pave the way for the deployment of this innovative safety technology,” Chris Urmson, Google’s director of self-driving cars, said in testimony prepared for the hearing.

Advocates of self-driving cars say the vehicles may free up space on the roads and in cities through shared ownership and on-demand car services. Fewer parked cars means fewer space-hogging urban garages.

The Transportation Department is trying to take up the challenge of fostering the technology. It released a study March 11 that concluded U.S. laws pose few barriers to adoption of autonomous-vehicle technology so long as cars and trucks stick with existing designs allowing humans to take control.

The enthusiasm among tech and auto companies is happening at the same time that U.S. highway deaths are rising. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates the fatality count for 2015 will be 10 percent higher than the previous year, when 32,675 people were killed.

General Motors Co., Delphi Automotive Plc and Lyft Inc. are also scheduled to testify.

Steering Wheels

Google has pushed the envelope of self-driving technology by deploying test cars without a steering wheel or a brake pedal. Those designs conflict with existing motor-vehicle regulations, NHTSA said.

The government should move fast to help self-driving cars to market, which will improve highway safety while enabling lower federal spending on roads, buses and trains, Urmson said.

“Over the next three decades, the U.S. Department of Transportation expects that self-driving cars will play a key role in reducing transit operating costs, improving highway efficiency, and freeing up existing parking infrastructure (which currently takes up a total area of 3,000 square miles in the U.S., equivalent to the size of Connecticut),” Urmson said.

Another witness, Mary Cummings of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, will caution lawmakers that a lot more research, testing and leadership from the federal government is needed before control can be handed over to robot drivers.

“While I enthusiastically support the research, development, and testing of self-­driving cars, as human limitations and the propensity for distraction are real threats on the road," Cummings says in her testimony. "I am decidedly less optimistic about what I perceive to be a rush to field systems that are absolutely not ready for widespread deployment, and certainly not ready for humans to be completely taken out of the driver’s seat.”

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