A self-driving car can't get you out of a traffic jam.
That's something Republican Sen. John Thune learned from the passenger seat of a modified Chrysler 300c from Continental on Tuesday as the Senate Commerce Committee explored autonomous driving technology.
"We went out into Virginia. Of course we hit the 395 traffic," said Thune, R-S.D., who is the committee chairman, referring to the interstate heading south from Washington. "Evidently driverless cars are not going to help our traffic jams."
Once the car reached suburban Arlington, it switched into self-driving mode.
"It's really amazing, just way more than I've seen or thought possible," Thune said. "It sees things. It adjusts automatically, like there was a dump truck going by and it kind of veers over away from it."
Thune and the Chrysler sedan left the District because local laws bar operation of automobiles in a fully autonomous mode, but the rules are different in nearby Virginia.
"That's a good example I think of the different patchwork of state regulations and laws that exist today and that's why I think in some ways we have to look at ... what are the ways that Congress and federal agencies can work together to create and enable, you know, the further development of this," Thune said, suggesting there need to be some uniform rules of the road across jurisdictional lines.
The ranking Democrat on Commerce, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, jumped behind the wheel of a Tesla, asking for "permission to engage" before hitting the road. A Roll Call photographer responded by wishing the former astronaut "Godspeed."
"The computer technology here is far advanced from the 1970s-1980s vintage technology of the Space Shuttle. But, of course you've got two different environments that you're engaged in," Nelson said after driving. "This is quite super here for terrestrial transportation."
"It's an incredible experience as you're barreling down the highway," Nelson told reporters. "As I was going into a turn, and it is accelerating with my hands off ... with a concrete barrier right in front with a sharp turn, it is turning but my instinct took over and I grabbed the wheel."
Thune was also impressed. "If you think about the 38,000 fatalities that occur on America's highways every year and how many of those could be avoided just because of inattentiveness and the mistakes the people make behaviorally when they're driving vehicles, how much this technology could save likes," he said. "That to me ultimately is the real goal in all this.
"I don't want to see the feds come down with a heavy hand, but I think at least a framework where there are general rules of the road," Thune said.
Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines took home another lesson from the driver's seat of a Tesla model S 90D: You would have to stop at a lot of charging stations to drive a Tesla from the Capitol to Bozeman, Mont.
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