Hundreds Enlist for Autonomous Vehicle Demo

Members of the public got the chance to ride in a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan on a 6-minute journey through a Detroit convention center.

A person gets into a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Friday, April 5, 2019, in Detroit.
A person gets into a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid Friday, April 5, 2019, in Detroit.
AP Photo/Mike Householder

Members of the public got the chance Friday to take a free ride in a self-driving vehicle as part of an effort to clear up confusion about the technology.

Hundreds signed up for the 6-minute journey that led riders through a course set up inside a Detroit convention center.

Mary Van Der Maas heard about the opportunity on the radio and decided to give it a shot. The 73-year-old retiree from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, hopped into an autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivan, and off she went.

"I think that it's just ignorance that keeps us from wanting to do this. And once you experience it, it's marvelous," she said afterward.

Daniel Schroeder, 17, said he "thought it was interesting how the car knew its route."

"And then it could identify things in the road," said the high school junior from Troy, Michigan, who spent one of the days of his spring break at the demo inside Cobo Hall downtown.

Rep. Debbie Dingell also rode in the driverless Pacifica, asking more than a few questions of organizers along the way.

"Public confidence in autonomous vehicles has decreased, not increased, over the last year for a variety of reasons," the Democratic congresswoman said. "And people need to get to know it. They need to be hands-on. They need to see that it works."

Dingell said she had asked her husband, the late John Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in the institution's history, to serve as an advocate for driverless cars, citing the technology's potential to benefit older Americans.

"He just quite frankly didn't trust it," Debbie Dingell said.

Technological hurdles and apprehension have limited attempts to deploy fully autonomous vehicles on public roadways.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars out of Arizona last year after one of the ride-hailing service's autonomous cars struck and killed a woman as she crossed the street.

Mary Moore of SAE International, an association of mobility engineers, said the idea behind the Detroit event is to "use the facts, use what's on the market today to explain what the capabilities are today and then also give a glimpse into what can happen in the future."

The event was sponsored by SAE International as well as Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, a coalition of industry, nonprofit and academic institutions whose goal is to inform and educate the public and policymakers about automated vehicles. It runs through Sunday and is free to attend.

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