White House rolls out guidelines for self-driving cars

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The White House has released the first-ever guidelines on self-driving cars, marking a major milestone toward getting autonomous vehicles on U.S. roads.

{mosads}The highly anticipated policy plan unveiled by the Department of Transportation (DOT) on Tuesday does not include stringent requirements, but instead offers a more flexible approach for companies pursuing the emerging technology.

The federal framework comes as a number of automakers, tech companies and ride-hailing firms have aggressively ramped up their efforts to produce driverless vehicles. Uber, for example, began using semi-autonomous vehicles for its fleets in Pittsburgh last week.

“Just eight years ago, people were predicting the financial ruin of the auto industry,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), co-founder of the Senate Smart Transportation Caucus, said in a statement. “Today, not only have our autos come roaring back with record sales, but they are now working to produce some of the greatest innovations in American manufacturing history.”

Officials said they were striving to strike the right balance between innovation and safety in crafting a national framework for driverless cars, which they praised for their ability to save lives, improve mobility and reduce traffic and fuel use.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, said the new guidance will ensure that the technology is developed and deployed safely for Americans.

“In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live,” Obama wrote in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed published Monday night.

“But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.”

Automakers and tech companies, that worried that states would produce a messy patchwork of regulations in the absence of federal guidelines, say the framework will provide a much-needed boost – and greater clarity – for the nascent industry.

“The guidelines released are a crucial next step in establishing a strong federal role in providing oversight and guidance to the states,” said Gary Shapiro, president and chief executive officer of the Consumer Technology Association.

It’s “a welcome approach to avoid patchwork laws that might inhibit innovation or make the latest cutting-edge technology inaccessible to consumers.”

The guidelines include a 15-point “safety assessment” that outlines the federal expectations for the design, testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

It also asks manufacturers and developers to certify how they are addressing each topic area, including privacy, cybersecurity and ethical issues; fall-back mechanisms; consumer training and education; and data recording and sharing.

Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx said that unlike the rigid standards for automobiles, regulators will determine whether driverless vehicles are meeting their safety and design expectations on a more case-by-case basis in an effort to give companies more room for innovation.

“Typically, we’d say a car has to meet X standard in a certain way,” Foxx said during a press call with reporters Monday evening. With automated vehicles, however, “we recognize there’s going to be different types of innovation and we intend to evaluate each of those on their own terms.”

Another critical component of the guidance seeks to clarify the state role versus the federal role in overseeing self-driving cars.

The model policy 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.

But the framework 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.

It is unclear whether federal law would preempt state laws that attempt to regulate the automation aspect of the technology.

“What we are trying to do is avoid a patchwork of state laws,” Foxx said. “Part of what we are doing with this policy is we are saying when software is operating the vehicle, that is an area we intend to regulate.”

The plan highlights current regulatory powers that the DOT can use to promote the safe operation and deployment of driverless vehicles, such as rulemaking, exemptions, letters of interpretation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) enforcement authority.

The guidance also identifies a basket of new tools that the agency could use – if they are granted by Congress.

Those items include pre-market approval authority, expanded exemptions and the power to require manufacturers to take immediate action to mitigate safety risk.

“As this collaborative process moves forward, I expect new needs for oversight and Congress’ role will come more clearly into focus,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement.

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.”

Officials will now seek public feedback on the guidelines, which the DOT plans to update annually. The agency also is planning to propose a rule requiring all new vehicles to be equipped with a technology that enables them to talk to one another and suggest best practices for cyber security in vehicles.

“This is not the last step on autonomous vehicles,” Foxx said. “But we do expect this framework will hold up over the long-term, and evolve over the long-term.”

Tags Anthony Foxx Barack Obama John Thune
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