The Washington, D.C., city council is mulling a bill that would soon allow autonomous, driverless cars to operate on district roadways.
The council held its first public meeting Tuesdayon the "Autonomous Vehicle Act of 2012," which would require the district Department of Motor Vehicles to create an autonomous vehicle designation and would allow driverless cars to operate in the district. The move comes after Google demonstrated its driverless car to district council members earlier this year.
"As fanciful and otherworldly and of the future this may sound, talking about cars that drive themselves, Councilmember Cheh and I have sat back and driven in one," said D.C. councilman Tommy Wells of the bill's sponsor Mary Cheh at the meeting. "No one's hands were on the wheel."
Representatives from Daimler and Volvo testified Tuesday and said they are also developing cars that can automatically brake if a pedestrian is in the way, with the goal of developing fully autonomous cars in the near future.
"By letting a car drive autonomously, we can come closer to eliminating accidents," Anders Eugensson, Volvo's director of governmental affairs said.
Kiara Pesante, a spokesperson for Cheh, said it's possible that the bill will be passed before the end of the year and would presumably allow driverless cars to operate as soon as Mayor Vincent Gray establishes "procedures and fees for the registration, titling, and issuance of permits to operate vehicles." The district would become the fourth state to legalize autonomous cars, after Nevada, California, and Florida.
"There are a slew of people who would benefit from this, whether they have a visibility or other disability, whatever it is. We're one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the transportation area," she says. "We're interested in giving people the most options possible to get around quickly and safety. This is just another piece of that."
Pesante says that D.C. roads, and their notoriously bad drivers, might represent a unique challenge for autonomous cars. But Cheh and the other councilmembers were sufficiently impressed with Google's demonstration that they decided to move forward with legislation.
"This can cut down on speeding, on accidents," she says. "But before we license these things, we have to make sure they can handle our urban environment. California and Nevada have a lot of highways and open roads. In D.C., we have a gridlock system and some interesting drivers in town."
During Tuesday's meeting, very few people raised any opposition to the proposed bill, but Cheh admitted that the "[council] is going to have to evaluate a lot of the particulars." Under her proposed bill, driverless cars would be exempt from the city's motor fuel tax, but would have to pay a vehicle-miles travelled tax of 1.875 cents per mile.
Though Google is developing a fleet of driverless cars and other companies are experimenting with the technology, there are still no robot cars in development for consumer use. Google CEO Sergey Brin estimates the cars will be available within five years. Intel CTO Justin Rattner says they're about a decade away. Early estimates suggest that the first generation of driverless cars will cost over $100,000.
Advocates, such as Peter Stone, a University of Texas at Austin researcher working on driverless traffic management systems, say that automated cars are likely to be much safer than human-operated ones. They'll also cut down on traffic, advocates say.
"They won't drive drunk, suffer from road rage, or text while driving," Stone told U.S. News earlier this year.
The D.C. government isn't alone in eyeing the technology. David Strickland, head of the National Highway Safety Administration, said Tuesday that the federal government has been discussing driverless car technology with Google and other car manufacturers about the hurdles the technology faces.
Not all the council members were as gung-ho about passing the autonomous vehicle act this year. Councilman Jack Evans said that driverless cars are "very far off in the future" and that the whole thing "sounds a little like 'The Jetsons.'"
More Tech News:
- Review: Mighty iPad Mini Looks Like a Holiday Hit
- The Latest Entrant in the Tablet Wars: Cadillac
- A Phone Home: N.Y. Teens Pay Valets to Store Devices
- Generation Spoiled? 40 Percent of Teens Have iPhones
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.