Transportation chief to unveil regs for driverless cars

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Transportation Secretary Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxUS-Mexico air transport deal cleared for takeoff DC Metro lags on federal safety actions Republican lawmakers sound the alarm over Cuba flights MORE said his department will unveil regulatory guidance for driverless cars in the coming months, marking a major federal step toward getting self-driving vehicles on the roads.

During an event hosted by Bloomberg Government on Tuesday, Foxx said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would issue guidelines for autonomous vehicles by mid-summer. He acknowledged the importance of developing a cohesive federal framework in order to encourage the development and sale of self-driving cars.

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Foxx also emphasized that the Department of Transportation wouldn’t necessarily go through the lengthy, formal rule-making process — a sentiment that underscores the challenges for federal regulators in balancing safety concerns with the desire to swiftly bring new technology to the market.

“One of the challenges … is not to be caught flat-footed with this technology coming into existence and to be part of the thought process,” Foxx said. “I’m not suggesting that we’re going to put a rule forward on this, but starting to lay a foundation so people have a sense for how the federal government is going to approach the issue.”

Major technology and car companies have been racing to develop vehicles that can drive themselves or contain some driverless features. The rapidly evolving technology offers the potential to reduce fatalities, traffic and pollution. But some worry that federal and state safety rules could hinder testing and development, which is why many are eager for a glimpse of what the federal policy may look like.

Currently, there are no overarching federal laws specifically governing self-driving vehicles. Several states have waded into the debate and over a dozen more are considering legislation. California, for example, issued draft regulations last year to require a licensed driver to be present in a driverless car in order to assume liability.

Foxx said releasing federal guidance would help shed light on which aspects of regulation should be uniform across the country and which could be done on a state-by-state basis, in order to avoid having a messy patchwork of policies. He also expressed a desire to lay the groundwork before the cars are available to the masses, unlike with drones, which came to market prior to regulations being put in place.

“We’ve promised to work with the states, because they handle a lot of questions around liability, driver training,” Foxx said. “There are so many things states do to regulate how we actually use automobiles.”

There are current standards that could apply to autonomous vehicles. The NHTSA told Google last month that a car’s software could legally be considered the driver under federal law if there is no human driver.

Foxx acknowledged that it can be difficult for federal regulators to keep pace with evolving technology but said doing so with autonomous cars can be a good exercise to help the department respond to different technological advances in the future.

“It’s like a muscle,” he said. “It strengthens our ability to understand the technology and respond nimbly to it.”

But safety advocates remain worried that rushing to integrate self-driving cars into the marketplace could do more harm than good for consumers. Some of their concerns include whether and how humans would interact with an automated system; if the software can be hacked; and how unmanned vehicles interact with other vehicles on the road. Safety concerns were further fueled earlier this year when a Google driverless car struck a bus in California.

“We’re not going to rush to put something on the market if we don’t believe it’s safe,” Foxx said. “That’s the tension and the arc that I think we are going to be involved in for quite some time.”

The issue has already grabbed the attention of Congress. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing earlier this month on autonomous technology, where experts voiced safety concerns about how old roads and bridges may interact with the new technology. Witnesses also testified about the importance of having testing sites for self-driving cars.

President Obama requested nearly $4 billion over 10 years in his fiscal 2017 budget request for testing and developing autonomous vehicles. But even with mounting congressional interest, that doesn’t mean lawmakers will play along.

“The reception has been a little frosty on Capitol Hill,” Foxx conceded.