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New autonomous car rules released by U.S. government

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The radical changes coming to our roadways mean regulators need to get more tech savvy, fast

As part of the vast shift in transportation being pushed forward by advancing automated vehicle technology, the U.S. Department of Transportation has drafted a series of rules, guidelines, and policy proposals meant to shape a common path toward a driverless future. In doing so, the agency begins the necessary, and difficult, task of determining safety and communications standards for the evolving technology, while accepting an incredible regulatory task that will require the agency to evolve beyond its current scope. As companies such as Google, Uber,Tesla, and Ford race to develop this new technology, the government wants to ensure there's a common framework governing our roadways.

During an embargoed press conference yesterday, Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx discussed how these new rules will prioritize safety and sustainability, and help usher in a sea change in U.S. transportation (one being contemplated on all levels of government). Automated vehicles will not only contribute to reductions in carbon emissions, but will help prevent the 94 percent of car crashes, give mobility-challenged Americans more freedom, and lets Americans recover some of the estimated $160 billion collectively lost sitting behind the wheel each year.

The government "envisions a future where you can take your hand off the wheel, and the wheel out of the car, where your commute becomes productive, or restful," said Jeffrey Zients, Director of the National Economic Council and Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. "We want to get them on the road as quickly and safely as possible."

"This will be an important milestone in the continuing story of how Americans travel," said Foxx. "The government could sit back and play catchup down the road, or we could keep pace with these developments and work to protect public safety while allowing innovation to flourish."

Foxx said he’s especially excited about the safety possibilities of this technology, and the innovative changes needed within the DOT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to deliver on this promise. The new rules and policy proposals, which will be fully released tomorrow, include the Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles, a 15-point safety assessment meant to give manufacturers benchmarks for safety, navigation, vehicle-to-vehicle communication, as well as a set of current and suggested regulatory tools the DOT can use to monitor and shape the automated vehicle market. A study by the DOT suggests that current laws do not cover many potential aspects of automated vehicle regulation.

Foxx "fully expects" the industry will respond to the 15-point safety assessment. "It’s in their interest to be as upfront as possible," he said.

AP Driverless Car
A row of Google self-driving Lexus cars at a Google event outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File
AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File

One of the most significant changes will be a shift in how automated vehicles are deemed fit for the road. Currently, automakers operate under a self-certifying regime, which means that they’re responsible for determining in a car is road-ready, and the DOT gets involved in violations or recalls. This new framework now puts the onus on the DOT.

This policy proposal represents a new step forward for the department, which now sets itself up to not only oversee robotics technology and some of the most technically sophisticated software under development, but have to retain the talented staff necessary to oversee these complex regulatory functions. This includes significant tasks such as approving post-sale software updates, and sending cease-and-desist letters when the agency determines if a manufacturer needs to take immediate action due to "imminent hazards." The NHTSA, for example, will potentially have more strict recall powers and responsibilities.

The DOT will also take the lead in creating laws for how automated cars will be expected to operate while on the road, superseding existing state laws that govern human drivers. Foxx wants to avoid an unruly patchwork of state regulations that might complicate the process of creating road-ready vehicles, while allowing states to maintain their control over traffic laws and vehicle licensing. To that end, the policy release contains a model state law that helps define jurisdictional boundaries.

Many of the proposals suggest the DOT is keenly aware of the massive changes and nimble development needed to evolve, and the iterative nature of the challenge. The agency is requesting the ability to keep regular records and enhance data collection, to better evaluate driving performance, while maintaining privacy protections. It also recognizes the need to expand its talent base; in addition to establishing a network of experts to broaden the NHTSA’s expertise, the agency is requesting the ability to hire directly and increase compensation.

"What I don’t want to happen is to have [this technology] hit our roads and have our department unprepared to deal with it on its own terms," said Foxx.

The DOT will continue to release new rules after the full policy statements are released, and plans an annual review of all existing automated vehicle legislation. Soon, the DOT will introduce proposed rules requiring vehicles are capable of sending safety messages to each other, as well as best practices around automotive cybersecurity.

During the call, Zients put the DOT’s support of autonomous vehicles within the context of favorable narrative: the Obama administration saved the automotive industry with the 2009 bailout, which will allow it to usher in a new generation of safe, efficient transportation. It was all part of the administration’s support of innovative technology and jobs. The fact that many worry this technology will lead to a massive loss of jobs went unsaid, though Zients noted that workers need to be trained to take advantage of this "transformative" technology. The policy debates necessary to adapt to a world of more and more robot workers is probably best left to another call.