Driverless Cars Are Coming. Is Congress Ready?

Google's new self-driving prototype car is presented during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif.

Google's new self-driving prototype car is presented during a demonstration at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Tony Avelar/AP

When it comes to transportation, the Hill is starting to think like Tomorrowland.

Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan has seen the future, and it is a driverless Uber.

Auto companies are quickly working on equipping cars with software that can connect to each other and to the roads around them, paving the way for, say, traffic lights to respond to traffic in real time. Eventually cars could be fully automated, paving the way for hands-free trips and—yes—car services that pick you up and drop you off without a human at the wheel.

"I'm a guy who likes to drive and be in control, so it takes some getting used to," said Peters, a Democrat. "But you can envision some incredible things."

The vision of robotic Ubers zipping you from door to door may be just a glimpse of the future, but it's one that Congress has to deal with now. As members work on a long-term transportation bill, they say they're increasingly thinking about the future and how to make sure states are incorporating new technology—and federal agencies are prepared to regulate it.

Highway-bill sponsors say it will ideally run for six years to give states the ability to plan large infrastructure projects (transportation funding is currently set to expire in July). The exact length will depend on funding, which has not been settled.

That means that, under the best case, Congress will be setting policy that runs through 2021. And by then, roads and the cars driving on them are likely to look very different. Google hopes to have a fully autonomous car on the road by 2020, as do GM, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Nissan, and other automakers. Cadillac has said its CTS will be equipped with a vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) system, allowing cars to communicate with each other, as early as 2017. Even Apple is said to be working on autonomous driving.

The length of the bill is no small thing: Think of the changes that have come since Congress last passed a long-term bill in 2012. Fuel efficiency has improved faster than expected, which has zapped the Highway Trust Fund. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Car2Go have also upended car ownership, while GPS navigation is treated as a given, not an add-on.

The future of transportation is even more transformative. Before driverless cars will make it out of the garage, states will need to lay the groundwork with vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) systems connecting cars and roadways (so, for example, if a bridge is unexpectedly shut down, it can alert drivers). Engineers are working on V2V systems that would let cars communicate with each other, automatically stopping to avoid crashes and ensuring that everyone has a safe following distance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has predicted that V2V and V2I technology could eliminate as many as 80 percent of the 33,000 annual accidents involving non-impaired drivers, while the technology can also make roads less congested and cars more efficient.

That means that the entire way planners think about roads could change. Future congestion needs, for example, could be met simply by making cars drive closer together rather than building out new freeways. But before automated cars can roam, states have to get their highways ready, and that's where the federal transportation bill can help.

"Like it or not, Congress is right in the middle of it," said Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, who serves on the House Ways and Means Committee that will dictate funding for the transportation bill. "There are opportunities for a dramatic enhancement of our transportation system. But at each point there are regulatory and resource questions that interact with Congress. We've got to take an expansive view of how to modernize that system."

Given how quickly technology is evolving, there's only so much Congress can do to keep up with the industry, which means bill writers have to be nimble—an adjective not typically tossed around on the Hill. Lawmakers say they want to push states to evolve their roads without forcing them to pick up inadequate or untested technology.

It's a problem the Transportation Committee faced in 2012 when it drafted a reauthorization for the Federal Aviation Administration just as drones were coming on the market. The committee instructed the FAA administrator to integrate unmanned aerial systems into its policies by September 2015, but confusion over what authority the agency has to approve the use of commercial drones slowed down the process. The FAA says it will miss the September deadline, and delays left drone operators and private companies frustrated.

So what can Congress do to avoid this confusion? To many, the answer is simple: get out of the way.

"You want to give the states maximum flexibility as these things evolve," said Rep. Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican and the cochair of the House Intelligent Transportation Systems Caucus. (Blumenauer is the Democratic cochair.)

Miller has introduced a bill that would allow states to use existing transportation funds from highway-safety and other programs to invest in vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) projects.

"What we're trying to do is draft language so it's not so prescriptive and it gives the auto companies and the state DOTs and the engineers room to move," said Miller. "We're telling states that you can use the money to do these kinds of things, and you figure out if you want to or not."

Peters, who last week introduced a companion bill in the Senate with Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, said the strategy is meant to make it easier for a state to, say, install sensors in a roadway during standard repairs, but leave open the option to just stick to traditional infrastructure.

An aide on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee working on the chamber's reauthorization bill said the committee is considering just such an approach. The bill—which is still being written—is expected to include language like Miller's that would free up dollars for new technology, and nudge states to explore it rather than sticking to the status quo.

There are also plans to devote money to research in new technology, possibly creating a grant program similar to the X Prize or DARPA that would allow urban areas to build out model cities for automotive cars.

Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is drafting the Senate version of the transportation bill, said his committee is trying to strike a similar balance that will promote research.

Michigan, home of the auto industry, is among the most advanced states when it comes to V2V and V2I systems, and the state's transportation head Kirk Steudle said he's eager for a new bill to give him "flexibility" to continue the investments. While his state is eager to get connected roadways, he said he also hears from other states more concerned about just staying afloat amid the tight budgets.

"Of course you've got to get your basic things covered, like paving roads and repairing bridges, but when you have that covered, why not have some money for tech research and deployment?" Steudle said. "Make it eligible to come out of federal funds so whoever wants it can be aware."

There's also a role for regulations to make sure the industry is aligned (standards would ensure that Ford cars and GM cars are literally on the same wavelength). The NHTSA in 2013 proposed regulations on driverless cars, and Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said last month that the agency would accelerate the rulemaking schedule to send a proposed rule to the White House by the end of the year. Only a handful of states—including Nevada, California, and Virginia—have laws allowing the testing of driverless cars on the roads.

DOT is also working with the Federal Communications Commission and others to ensure there's space on the wireless spectrum for the cars to interact.

"We want to be promoting research, testing, safety examinations," said Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the ranking member of the Transportation Committee. "We'll have to build in flexibility for regulators to deal with this technology, and give adequate discretion to the secretary to promulgate some reasonable rules."

Paul Feenstra, vice president of government and external affairs at the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, said he's been working with the group's partners to educate regulators and lawmakers on the latest developments as they craft regulations.

"It's very exciting to talk about driverless cars and we'll get there sooner than people think, but we've really got to think about how we make it safe and how we manage this," said Feenstra. "The last thing we want is policy-makers making decisions without the right amount of research."

Ultimately, said Michigan's Steudle, the technology will make an impact only when it's fully integrated into transportation plans, requiring a shift away from the traditional concrete-and-asphalt thinking in most DOTs. But with the right push, Steudle said, it can happen quickly.

"In 1965 if we had decided we knew everything, we'd all be driving around in a lot of nice-looking 1965 Chevrolet Chevelles," said Steudle. "At every point in time you could argue that we don't have the money or we should just fix the problem and move on, but somehow we always manage to think about the future. And we're better for it."