Sam Graves posed the hypothetical question knowing that, with evolving technology in transportation, it might not remain hypothetical for long.
The driver of a car travels down a road and a dog darts in front of the vehicle, but a little girl stands on the side of the road. Any motorist would make the subjective decision, the congressman said: “You’re going to do whatever you can to not kill this little girl.”
But what happens with a self-driving car?
“It’s going to see something in the road, and it’s going to swerve to miss it,” Graves said. “It can’t differentiate between an obstacle in the road and a little girl that’s standing on the side.”
The Missouri lawmaker wonders about this. A member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee since going to Washington in 2001, Graves sits in a prime spot to see the developments that technology has brought.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, the drones and self-driving cars had in his earlier days been a matter of futuristic conversation, a possibility but hardly in the offing.
For those considering policies regarding transportation’s future, they have become a reality.
“This technology is coming, and it’s coming very fast,” he said. “We have to be thinking ahead.”
In the case of the autonomous car and the runaway dog, safety becomes the main concern. But legal questions also must be faced.
“If there’s no driver in the vehicle and the vehicle hits somebody, who’s actually liable?” Graves wondered. “Is it the owner, which goes back to vicarious liability? Is it the person who wrote the code or programmed the vehicle?”
Graves, who sits as the top Republican on the Transportation Committee and in the past has chaired the subcommittee on Highways and Transit, has been at test tracks where engineers try to work out the problems of self-driving cars.
He has also had before him the ideas of companies like Lyft and Uber for “vertical taxi service,” flying cabs that would have no traffic worries. On the roadways, “smart highway” technologies have been in development that might charge electric cars as they drive, integrate with autonomous cars and light themselves at night.
“Is there a technology we need to be able to embed in the pavement, whatever the case may be, to be able to allow them to operate?” Graves said.
Improved highways would have benefits for anyone shipping goods, as would enhancements of waterways and ports.
In a rail traffic center in Dallas, the congressman has seen the workings of “positive train control,” a cutting-edge means of operating locomotives more safely and with greater efficiency.
A train, of sorts, has an especially futuristic bearing for Missouri.
Virgin Hyperloop One picked the state, and specifically its Interstate 70 corridor, as a potential site for its application of travel through a tube at high speeds in a vehicle held aloft by magnetic levitation.
With a speed of up to 700 miles an hour, the trip between St. Louis and Kansas City would take about 30 minutes.
State Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, whose 34th District includes St. Joseph, sits on a task force studying the feasibility of Missouri’s involvement in the project. His first concern, he said, was about possible costs to taxpayers.
“What I was very encouraged by during the first meeting we had in Jefferson City was almost all of the focus was on bringing private capital, investment capital, to Missouri in order to finance the project,” he said.
Near the center of the route, the University of Missouri-Columbia would reap ancillary benefits from the project.
“If that would happen, Missouri would really become the epicenter for futuristic high-speed rail, which has untold economic development possibilities for research here in the state of Missouri,” he said.
For the state, it would not be an unaccustomed position, Luetkemeyer added.
“Missouri was the first state to start the interstate highway system,” the senator said, “and so, in a way, history would come full circle if hyperloop came to Missouri because we would be the first again when it comes to a major mode of transportation that could connect the entire country.”