Congress Tackles Flying Cars & Driverless Tech

WASHINGTON (CN) – Flying cars will likely remain relegated to science-fiction fantasy, but experts told Congress that driverless, fully automated cars are poised to dominate the auto industry in 30 years.

The main hurdles such progress faces are an increased need of experts to design and build the cars, and the funding to make it happen, said Mark Rosekind, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, Rosekind estimated that the potential for fully automated, self-driving cars is only a few decades off.

Smart cars, or cars with partially autonomous features like automatic emergency brakes, have emerged onto the market at a faster clip in recent years. But Rosekind was quick to remind representatives that introducing fully functional, driverless cars to consumers would likely be a staggered prospect.

Safety features and other technological concerns still need hashing out before cars feature much more thn adaptive cruise control, parking assist and collision alerts.

“For the next 20 or 30 years, at least, we’ll likely have a mixed fleet of different levels of automation,” he said.

Concerns over safety in the cars of the future ranged from simple yet potentially dangerous variables like inclement weather or uneven road surfaces to more complicated prospects such as the possibility of automated technology within a car being hacked by what Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind., called “bad actors.”

Rep. Brett Guthrie, R-Ky., also pressed Rosekind about the complications that could arise from such actors.

“I understand that the importance of self-driving cars is to look for ways to secure safety but there are homeland-security issues too,” Guthrie said.

Rosekind replied that this was covered already in two public meetings.

The Department of Homeland Security “has already been informed,” Rosekind added. “Meetings have been held.”

The NHTSA official noted that a proactive attitude has helped move the dream of a driverless world closer to reality.

“A year ago in January, the secretary of state announced a proactive safety agreement with 18 global automakers,” he said. “We’ve already seen best practices come from the industry on cybersecurity, emergency breaking, etcetera. A Volvo truck recall hit a 100 percent completion rate. This is only the beginning.”

Rosekind added that “it’s not just talk.”

“We’re seeing concrete actions, but we have to wait and see if we can meet all of the requirements,” he said.

The Department of Transportation has worked closely with NHSTA to develop a 15-point safety assessment letter to help automakers comply with driverless-car best practices.

Rosekind described the 15-point checklist, as simple yet thorough, “like an executive summary you would give to a CEO.”

Ideally, the list could act as the foundation for safe, smart driverless technology, he added.

The 15-point assessment guide includes directions for companies about “internal processes and strategies, organizational awareness, record-keeping, testing and validation, engagement with DOT and NHTSA, and improved transparency to support the safe deployment of HAV technology.”

The document also specifies that “the industry’s adoption and use of the guidance, which DOT and NHTSA will review annually and update as necessary, will build public confidence and maintain the U.S. lead on these emerging automotive safety technologies.”

Given the rapid progress of emerging auto tech, regulators have had a light touch on the industry so far. Rosekind for his part chose his words carefully, repeating himself several times throughout the hearing when he told members of Congress that the letter is “not a series of regulations NHSTA is willing to enforce” on companies, nor was it his organization’s wish to become regulatory police.

“There’s no judgment on compliance, our concern is whether they’ve addressed the areas covered [in the letter],” he said.

Driver fatalities have decreased since recordkeeping began in 1975 when the DOT started an annual census on vehicular deaths. Speaking to the seductive prospect of removing human error from driving nearly altogether, Rosekind noted that 94 percent of all crashes “can be tied back to human choice or error.”

“While automated vehicles carry enormous potential to transform mobility, reshape our transportation system and transform our economy, it is their awesome potential to revolutionize roadway safety that has us so motivated,” Rosekind testified.

But Rep. Markwayne Mullins, R-Okla., noted that the call of the road, the liberation of getting in a car and taking off for parts unknown, is an almost instinctual drive for consumers.

Rosekind played down such concerns.

“We’re not going to take the steering wheel out of people’s hands,” Rosekind said. “I mean, top down, hands on the wheel, driving down the Pacific Highway – people will do that for a long time and we’ll have a mixed fleet for a long time.”