NHTSA: US now at 'historic turning point' on driverless cars

States that are considering allowing driverless cars on their road should standardize their regulations of automated vehicles, the Obama administration said in a new policy issued on Thursday.

The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it was issuing recommendations for driverless cars because companies like Google are developing automated technologies for vehicles and several states are beginning to approve their use.

NHTSA said in its policy that it does not believe driverless cars are ready for widespread use, but it said it wanted to “encourage” further testing of the newest technologies by providing guidance to states.

“We offer these recommendations to state drafters of legislation and regulations governing the licensing, testing, and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads in order to encourage the safe development and implementation of automated vehicle technology, which holds the potential for significant long-term safety benefits,” NHTSA wrote.

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“While the agency does not believe that self-driving vehicles are currently ready to be driven on public roads for purposes other than testing, the agency would like to emphasize that it is encouraged by innovations in automated driving and their potential to transform our roadways,” the agency continued.

NHTSA’s policy divides vehicle technologies into four categories: Function-specific Automation (Level 1), Combined Function Automation (Level 2), Limited Self-Driving Automation (Level 3); Full Self-Driving Automation (Level 4).

The agency said driverless cars would fall into levels three and four. Google’s prototype, which was featured in a popular YouTube video, would be a level three automated vehicle, NHTSA said. 

The agency’s policy calls for states to establish licensing standards for automated vehicles, ensure that testing of driverless cars does not impact existing traffic and establish reporting requirements for companies doing the testing.

NHTSA said it was leaving the specifics of the regulations up to the states.

“In general, we believe that states are well suited to address issues such as licensing, driver training, and conditions for operation related to specific types of vehicles,” the agency said. “NHTSA has considerable concerns however about detailed state regulation on safety of self-driving vehicles, and does not recommend at this time that states permit operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing.”

Driverless cars have also drawn the attention of lawmakers. A Senate committee held a hearing about the new technologies earlier this month.

During the hearing, lawmakers expressed a mix of excitement and uncertainty about the possibility of cars driving themselves.

“There is much to be excited about as these technologies develop," Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said during the May 15 hearing.

"But there are risks, as well as important questions,” Rockefeller continued. “We have to ask some of them this day and discuss them."

The top-ranking Republican on the Senate's Transportation Committee, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expressed more optimism about driverless cars and other new automation technologies for vehicles.

"These technologies, which include driver-assistance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication and autonomous self-drive cars, offer the promise of many future benefits," Thune said during the hearing. "Anyone who has seen the YouTube video of Steve Mahan, a blind man using Google's self-driving car to perform his daily errands around the suburbs of Morgan Hill, Calif., knows how potentially life-changing these technologies may be," he said.

For its part, NHTSA said on Thursday that it was issuing its policy now because “America is at a historic turning point for automotive travel." 

“Motor vehicles and drivers’ relationships with them are likely to change significantly in the next ten to twenty years, perhaps more than they have changed in the last one hundred years,” the agency said. 

The full NHTSA driverless car policy can be read here.