Sen. Bill Nelson on Ride in Self-Driving Car: ‘I’m Glad I Grabbed the Wheel’

Melanie Arter | March 16, 2016 | 3:15pm EDT
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In this April 22, 2014 file photo, a worker cleans a Tesla Model S sedan before a event to deliver the first set of cars to customers in Beijing. (AP Photo)

( - Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), in opening testimony at the Senate Commerce Committee’s hearing Tuesday on self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, described his ride in an autonomous car in Washington, D.C.

“So I’m in the Tesla, and we’re coming back across the Anacostia River and getting up on the bridge, then to get up onto the ramp onto 395, and I’m instructed in the driver’s seat, ‘engage the autonomous switch.’ I click it twice. ‘Take your hands off the wheel,’ and so all of a sudden, the car is speeding up, and they say it automatically will go with the flow of the vehicles in front and back,” Nelson said.


“But now we are approaching the on-ramp onto 395, and it is a sharp turn, and the vehicle is still speeding up, and they said, ‘trust the vehicle.’ And as we approach the concrete wall, my instincts could not resist, and I grabbed the wheel, touched the break and took over manual control,” he said. “I said what would have happened.

“They said if you’d left your hands off the wheel, it would have made that sharp turn and come on around,” said Nelson, “so I’m here to tell you that I’m glad I grabbed the wheel, but we know if this is working as it apparently is, then there are going to be many lives that could be saved by preventing preventable accidents, because what if you suddenly look down at your cell phone and all of a sudden the car in front of you stops or the one comes over into your lane?”

Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) said Continental, Volkswagen, BMW, and Telsa provided “self-drive” vehicles for the senators on the committee to try to see “what the future may hold in a preview to the discussions at this hearing.”

Nelson said efficiency and productivity could be “considerably” increased with the use of autonomous vehicles.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) (AP Photo)

“Underserved communities without reliable means of transportation could finally be integrated into the national economy. In so many states, this technology could be particularly beneficial for seniors and those with disabilities, but we have to have the technology right so the self-driving cars can live up to their promise,” he said.

Nelson said the federal government has the “critical role” of making sure that the regulatory and legal environment “in which American business does business is able to develop and manufacture these vehicles.”

It also means Congress has to “exercise responsible oversight,” he said, “and as we’ve seen in this committee on other subjects such as the Takata air bags and the GM ignition switch recall, individual components of vehicles with defects can suddenly snowball into major problems, so with an autonomous car, the stakes are all the more gonna be high.”

Nelson warned that cyber attacks could also impact the safety of autonomous vehicles.

“You can imagine in this world of cyber security and cyber attacks, imagine what would happen to autonomous vehicles to get hacked while they’re out on the road,” he said. “One small defect could end up in a massive safety crisis, and if the problem comes up, manufacturers and regulators are gonna have to get together and quickly find those solutions.

“No more cover-ups, no more head-in-the-sand approaches to safety. If we’re gonna avoid the tragedies, we’ve got to be Johnny on the spot,” Nelson said.

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