Federal Regulators Open the On-Ramp for Self-Driving Cars

New guidelines, due out today, will speed robocars into use as soon as possible

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U.S. DoT Secretary Foxx on the day he announces the imminent publication of federal robocar guidelines
Anthony Foxx (left), Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation
Photo: Paul Sancya/AP

One of the great questions hanging over self-driving cars is the attitude that government regulators will take toward them.

As it had hinted it would do, the U.S. Department of Transportation has chosen to allow the adoption of robocars to proceed as quickly as possible (but not more so, to borrow a phrase from Einstein).  

In a statement last night the DOT summarized the policy, which it has just released in full today. It’s a system of guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules—enough to enable engineers to plan their products and companies to refine their business models.

“This is a change of culture for us,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said yesterday. “Typically we would say a car must meet standard ‘A’ in a certain way. Under this approach, it isn’t prescriptive that there have to be specific proof points to be met before a technology comes to market.”

The guidelines cover when a car can drive itself; when it must hand control back to the driver; how it might stop or leave the road when such a handover’s not possible; and how it must handle ethical challenges, such as whether to veer to avoid one accident even if that risks causing another one. Perhaps most important, the framework will have national standing.

Voxreports that a Transportation Department official said last night in a telephone interview that the federal rules will cover robotic systems, while those of states and municipalities will apply only to the human drivers. In other words, if I drive badly, my state will punish me; if my car drives itself badly, the feds will intervene, presumably by going after the car’s maker.

Here is how the full Department of Transportation (DOT) report puts it: “DOT strongly encourages States to allow DOT alone to regulate the performance of [self-driving] technology and vehicles. If a State does pursue [self-driving] performance-related regulations, that State should consult with NHTSA and base its efforts on the Vehicle Performance Guidance provided in this Policy.”

The U.S. government has long shown its desire to encourage self-driving technology, both in what it has said and in what it has not said. At a conference back in July, Mark R. Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, refused to mention by name the first fatality caused by a robocar—a Tesla Model S that drove itself into a truck two months before. Instead he referred to it indirectly as “the elephant in the room,” and went on to stress that no single failure would “derail” the government’s efforts to speed the adoption of self-driving cars.

“We should be desperate for new tools that will help us save lives,” Roskind said.

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