Obama finally gets to drive — almost

During a visit to the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, President Obama tested a self-driving car stationed at a simulator. (Reuters)

President Obama displayed genuine excitement Tuesday while visiting the Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, Va. -- in part because it gave him a chance to drive for once.

The president, who came to the transportation technology-testing facility to make a case for pouring more federal funds into U.S. infrastructure, enthusiastically entered a self-driving  car stationed at a simulator.

“Man, this is so exciting,” he remarked. “I haven’t been on the road in a long time."

After making a quip about his height -- “Yeah, I’m a little tall, but that’s okay,” -- the president took the wheel and buckled up. “Safety first.”

As the car -- positioned in front of a large screen where cars and trucks whizzed by -- lifted up and tilted back, Obama yelled out, “Whoa!”

A few minutes later, recounting his experience to a crowd of nearly 200 of the center's employees, the president prompted laughter when he said, "It was sort of like 'Knight Rider.'"

"I have to say, though, it was a little disorienting -- I haven't driven in about six years.  And I'm going down the highway, and I think I had a little bit of a lead foot -- I was starting to hit 90," he continued, drawing more laughter. "And then like right next to me, the press pool is standing there, and they’re kind of traveling with me at 90 miles an hour, and it got me a little queasy. But I've recovered."

Obama also discussed during his tour that self-driving vehicles could cut down on accidents, commuting time and fuel consumption. These vehicles could eliminate about 80 percent of crashes involving non-impaired drivers, according to a DOT analysis, while a separate study by the Texas Transportation Institute showed it could save as much as 3.9 billion gallons in wasted fuel a year.

"Now, as the father of a daughter who just turned 16, any new technology that makes driving safer is important to me," he said. "And new technology that makes driving smarter is good for the economy."

Noting that the average commuter wastes $800 a year in fuel while stuck in traffic, while outdated bridges and roads force businesses pay an extra $27 billion in freight costs, the president said, "Transportation eats up more of the typical family’s household budget than anything except the rent or a mortgage -- which means that the cutting-edge research that all of you are doing here helps save lives and save money, and leads to new jobs and new technologies and new industries."

Obama questioned why Congress wasn't doing more to restore money to the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which could run short of cash as soon as next month.

"We know that in a 21st century economy, businesses will set up shop wherever they find the best roads and bridges, and the fastest rail and Internet, the smartest airports, the smartest power grids," he said. "First-class infrastructure attracts first-class jobs.  And right now, our investments in transportation are lagging the rest of the world."

While the White House has endorsed a stop-gap measure pending in the House that would extend funding for the trust fund until next spring, Obama said Tuesday, "All this does is set us up for the same crisis a few months from now."

"So Congress shouldn’t pat itself on the back for averting disaster for a few months, kicking the can down the road for a few months, careening from crisis to crisis when it comes to something as basic as our infrastructure," he said. "Instead of barely paying our bills in the present, we should be investing in the future."

Obama did have one critique of the advanced automobile he tested out: no radio.

“Where’s the music?” he asked. “Have you guys ever driven down the highway without music?”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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