As usual, technology is evolving more rapidly than the ability of pundits, bureaucrats and politicians to absorb the implications — especially in the realm of transportation. Two more cases in point:
Googleburg. Google is now testing its self-driving car on the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road in Blacksburg. Reports the Roanoke Times:
The technology giant has spent the past month in Blacksburg putting amateur test subjects behind the wheel of one of its self-driving cars at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Smart Road. The drivers were confronted with a range of scenarios and judged on how they responded.
Semiautonomous cars switch control back and forth between the driver and the vehicle. Among other questions, Google wanted to know how well people were able to manage these transitions.
Meanwhile in Sweden… The Europeans are investigating the potential for autonomous cars to engage in “platooning,” cars following one another almost bumper to bumper. Such a practice would be considered unsafe with human drivers, with their slow reaction times, but theoretically can be perfectly safe when cars can accelerate and brake in unison. Platooning can boost mileage efficiency by up to 20% and increase the capacity of highways. (Hat tip: Larry Gross.)
Politicians on board! Southwest Virginia’s two congressmen participated in a public relations event yesterday to publicize the Google car tests. U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County, and Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, took a couple of test laps around Tech’s closed track. Said Goodlatte: “It’s technology that is going to revolutionize transportation, the automotive industry and perhaps most importantly of all. … it’s going to enhance automobile safety and I think efficiency as well.”
Great! It’s nice to know someone is paying attention. Now, please tell us how Congress will sort out the liability issues when a Google car on auto-pilot gets in a wreck. Meanwhile, Virginia political leaders need to ask themselves (a) will driverless cars inspire more Vehicle Miles Driven, as one might expect if a person can spend his commute surfing the web or checking email instead of paying attention to the road; (b) can platooning increase the capacity of Virginia’s existing highway infrastructure; (c) do Virginia roads and highways require capital investment to accommodate driverless cars, (d) will practices like platooning require a re-write of traffic laws, (e) should it be legal for a 12-year-old to ride alone in a driverless car? …and that’s just off the top of my head.