Tech seeks green light for self-driving cars

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Tech groups are looking to the federal government to jump start the young but potentially lucrative market for self-driving cars.

Without intervention,they fear a patchwork of state laws could develop and keep so-called autonomous vehicles from ever hitting the road.

“Transportation is a national issue,” said Jamie Boone, director of government relations at the Consumer Technology Association. “And if you’re going to deploy an entirely new type of vehicle and technology, crossing state lines and having different rules is a huge inhibitor to that."

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Advocates for self-driving cars finally see help at hand from Washington. On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxAutonomous vehicle guidelines will provide direction, not regulation Transportation Dept. launches aviation test lab with NASA Overnight Regulation: Drones ready to take flight under new rules MORE called for Congress to approve $4 billion over 10 years to promote pilot programs on self-driving vehicles.

Even more attractive to tech groups, another plan calls for the Transportation Department and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to create guidelines for state policymakers to draw on when regulating self-driving cars.

That effort isn't subject to the budget process and the department said Thursday it would work with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and state officials to complete the rules within six months.

“The agency will work with states to craft and propose model policy guidance that helps policymakers address issues in both the testing and the wider operational deployment of vehicles at advanced stages of automation and offers a nationally consistent approach to autonomous vehicles,” the NHTSA and the department said.

“For policymakers at all levels, the governing [principle] should be that technologies with proven, data-supported benefits that would make roads safer should be encouraged.”

That could be good news for companies looking to develop and ultimately profit from self-driving cars.

Information Technology Industry Council President Dean Garfield said in a statement that as “tech companies develop and road test new vehicle technologies, we'll be looking to the federal government to help be the bridge that is needed for self-driving cars to make the leap from being an R&D project to being in the marketplace and on the road.”

The promise of swift action from the Transportation Department is also positive, Boone added.

“Six months is great," she said. "Innovation moves at lightening speed, and that tends to not be the way things work in the regulatory world. So hearing NHTSA and DOT wanting to move quicker to be able to respond to the market and allow for innovative thinking is incredibly helpful."

DOT also pledged to develop vehicle safety guidelines for industry, consult with companies on their plans and consider exempting companies from some regulations if need be.

But tech leaders acknowledged a long process ahead and were cautious in their optimism.

Technology’s eagerness to work with the federal government on the issue reflects worry within the industry about the obstacles facing tech and auto companies at the state level as they try to bring self-driving cars to the mass market.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles announced a draft rule in December, for example, that would require a licensed human driver behind the wheel of a self-driving car at all times. The rule was criticized by Chris Urmson, who leads the self-driving car project at Google X, the company’s division for experimental projects.

“This maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive,” he said in a post on Medium.

The DOT said Thursday that it would “consider seeking new authorities” to get enough self-driving cars— even those that don't need a human in the vehicle — on the road. The department hopes to prove they can match or improve on the safety of traditional cars.

The prospect of American roads filled with self-driving cars is motivating both automakers and high-profile technology companies.

Google is testing cars of its own design in more than one city, while ride-hailing giant Uber raided a university robotics lab to build its own research facility for autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh, Pa. Lyft, a rival to the much-larger Uber, has partnered with General Motors on a project related to self-driving cars.

An Uber spokesperson declined to comment on Foxx’s announcement.

Google said in a statement that fully “autonomous vehicles have the potential to save lives, so we welcome the Secretary's commitment to removing barriers that may prevent them from sharing the roads when they're ready.”

Lyft said they are "optimistic about the Obama administration's plan to support the introduction of autonomous cars."

“Safety is the top priority for Lyft and GM's on-demand autonomous network which will introduce self-driving cars to the US," the company added.

"We look forward to continuing to work with federal, state, and local governments to shape the future of mobility."