D.C. eyes driverless cars by 2018

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Local,Transportation,Liz Essley

Driverless cars could be chugging through the District within five years if D.C. lawmakers and Google get their way.

Supporters of the cars testified at a hearing before the D.C. Council's transportation committee Tuesday as it considered a bill legalizing the vehicles, saying driverless cars would cut down on crashes and congestion and improve the environment. The cars would be able to eliminate human error -- which causes about 90 percent of all accidents -- and take the fastest routes to avoid traffic, supporters said.

"We recognize that autonomous cars are the future," said Daimler representative David Trebing.

But Trebing and a spokesman for Volvo said their fully autonomous cars wouldn't be available for another 10 years or more. Google representatives, who did not attend Tuesday's hearing, said earlier this year that they hope to have a product to make normal cars driverless within five years.

"We don't believe we're at the point of replacing the driver right now," Trebing said. "Safety is our primary concern ... The public streets just really aren't the place for a trial-and-error test."

The cars would use an array of sensors and communication devices to navigate roads and talk to other cars, automaker representatives said. California, Nevada and Florida already have approved them.

D.C. seemed set to approve the vehicles, with both District Department of Transportation Director Terry Bellamy and council members lavishing praise on the cars.

"This is another step closer to the Jetsons, not the Flintstones," said Ward 2 Councilman Jack Evans. "I would love to be one of the first major cities in America where this technology exists."

Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh, who chaired the hearing, said she would be tweaking a few things in the bill to address automakers' liability concerns. She rode in Google's driverless car in May and loved it.

"I found it to be absolutely amazing. I didn't know we had advanced that far," she said.

The bill would also tax the vehicles based on the number of miles traveled to make up for lost gas tax, since most of the cars are expected to be hybrid or electric models.

lessley@washingtonexaminer.com

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