The U.S. Transportation Department is out with long-anticipated guidelines that seek to lay down rules of the road for self-driving vehicles — and the takeaway is that the agency is giving a green light to the fast-moving, billion-dollar industry.
The “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy,” released on Tuesday, does outline 15 benchmarks automakers need to meet before their vehicles are rolled out on public roads. But the requirements are general and not likely to be onerous for the companies racing to develop fully self-driving vehicles, most notably Tesla, Ford, Uber and Google.
And this appears to be by design; the feds want to encourage an industry in its infancy that it says will ultimately lead to safer roads.
“Today, the automobile industry is on the cusp of a technological transformation that holds promise to catalyze an unprecedented advance in safety on U.S. roads and highways,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx states in the report. “The development of advanced automated vehicle safety technologies, including fully self-driving cars, may prove to be the greatest personal transportation revolution since the popularization of the personal automobile nearly a century ago.”
The agency notes that human error is a factor in 94 percent of fatal car crashes; more than 35,000 people in the U.S. were killed in accidents in 2015 alone.
The supportive tone of the guidelines reflects the fact that Uber, Lyft and other tech companies have been closely involved the planning process through a lobbying group, the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets. Self-driving vehicles figure prominently in the ride-hailing/sharing business models of not only Uber and Lyft, but automakers like Ford.
Still, the D.O.T. is not giving the companies carte blanch. Among the 15 benchmarks proposed in the report are requirements that the companies show how their virtual driving systems will function; how they were tested; and what happens if they fail. And the agency will have the authority to order a recall of autonomous vehicles deemed unsafe.
The report comes on the heels of an op-ed President Barack Obama wrote in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette largely supporting the development of autonomous vehicles for safety reasons. Pittsburgh, of course, is where Uber has deployed its first test fleet of driver-assisted self-driving cars.
States will still be able enact their own regulations governing self-driving vehicles, a process that is already well underway. But the federal guidelines will likely head off legislation that might seek to ban or otherwise severely restrict the use of autonomous vehicles.
The response by automakers and tech companies to the new guidelines was largely positive. “State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation,” the general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets told the New York Times.