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Five takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines

Five takeaways from the new driverless car guidelines
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The White House unveiled highly anticipated guidelines this week that establish the first-ever national framework for the operation and deployment of self-driving vehicles.

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The guidance is seen as a major step toward getting autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads as critical regulatory questions loom over the emerging industry.

Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony Renard FoxxGeorgia Power says electricity at Atlanta airport will likely be restored by midnight Ex-Obama transportation chief on Atlanta airport power outage: 'Total and abject failure' To address America's crumbling infrastructure, follow Britain's lead MORE said the agency plans to update the federal guidelines annually and is now seeking public feedback on the policy plan.

Here are five major takeaways from the guidance.

Fully autonomous cars won’t need steering wheels

The White House made clear in its guidelines that fully autonomous vehicles won’t necessarily be required to have a steering wheel or brake pedals.

Although current safety standards require those features in cars, the Department of Transportation (DOT) signaled that automakers can seek an exemption to depart from current vehicle designs — as long as they can prove its safe.

The news is likely a huge relief for the industry, since companies such as Ford and Google are already forging ahead with plans to build fully driverless cars.

The policy framework also doesn’t envision fully driverless cars needing a licensed human driver in the vehicle. The ability to increase mobility is seen as one of the major benefits of autonomous vehicles.

“Automated vehicles hold enormous potential to improve the lives of millions of American like me who because of a disability, age, or other condition are not able to enjoy easy access to personal transportation,” said Henry Claypool, policy director of the Community Living Policy Center at the University of California San Francisco.

Cybersecurity and privacy issues are a concern

A major crux of the guidance is a 15-point safety assessment that automakers must complete. Although the checklist doesn’t tell developers how to meet the standards, companies must document how they are addressing each area.

Two of the benchmarks deal with privacy and cybersecurity concerns.

Chinese researchers were able to remotely hack a Tesla vehicle this week, underscoring the potential risks and vulnerabilities associated with the use of autonomous vehicle software.

Automakers will now have to tell the government how they are safeguarding against vehicle hacking risks. Companies must also detail how they are taking privacy considerations into account when designing driverless cars.

States and cities may revisit their own policies

The DOT sought to better clarify the state versus federal role, as automakers and tech companies have worried that states would produce a messy patchwork of regulations without any overarching guidance.

The framework recommends that states be responsible for licensing human drivers; enacting and enforcing traffic laws; regulating motor insurance and liability; and establishing requirements for autonomous vehicle testing on public roads.

The policy envisions the federal government as having primary control over the actual automation software, as well as being responsible for setting safety standards, carrying out enforcement and handling recalls.

California issued draft regulations last year to require a licensed driver to be present in a driverless car, along with requiring a steering wheel and pedals in the automobiles. And the Chicago City Council is proposing an ordinance that would prohibit any autonomous vehicles from operating on the city’s roads.

But the new federal guidelines may prompt states like California to reconsider their proposals, although it’s unclear whether any federal laws would actually preempt state regulations.

“California has yet to fully act,” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind during a press conference this week. “So there's an opportunity, not just for California but all states to coordinate to try and get that uniform consistent framework for the country.”

Feds are banking on data-sharing 

The administration sees data-sharing as the key to improving safety when the new technology is rolled out.

The guidelines recommend that companies share test and crash data with the government, industry and public “to increase their learning and understanding as technology evolves but protects legitimate privacy and competitive interests.”

But whether competitors will be willing to share such information with each other is another question.

Senior DOT officials told reporters in a briefing that they hope to model how the airline industry shares data in order to make flying safer, although they acknowledged that it took some time for more airlines to participate.

“Over time, this trust has built up, the amount of data has increased,” one official said.

The DOT may seek new powers from Congress

The guidelines identify a basket of new regulatory tools that could aid the Transportation Department in its mission to ensure the safety of driverless cars. But most of the authorities would have to be granted by Congress.

“We’re very open. This is going to be evolving. We’re talking about a whole new area,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneOvernight Tech: Uber exec says 'no justification' for covering up hack | Apple considers battery rebates | Regulators talk bitcoin | SpaceX launches world's most powerful rocket Apple tells senator it may give rebates to consumers who bought iPhone batteries Republican agenda clouded by division MORE (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Hill. “But we’re willing to work with them on the authorities, the rules, to ensure this technology is rolled out safely.”

The wish list includes the power to require manufacturers to take immediate action to mitigate safety risks, the ability to regulate post-sale software changes in automated vehicle systems and expanded exemptions.

Also on the list is pre-market approval authority, where the government approves new technologies before they come to market — a major departure from the agency’s current self-certification system.

Marc Scribner, a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, applauded the DOT’s effort but took issue with the agency’s desire to approve new vehicle technologies before they come to market.

“Congress must reject any attempts to replace or augment NHTSA's traditional self-certification process with pre-market approval authority,” he said. “Developers operating under the European Commission's type of approval process have repeatedly warned NHTSA and North American developers that pre-market approval will only add cost and delay.”