Federal Guidelines Balance Safety and Innovation in Self Driving Cars

The federal government issued long-awaited guidelines late Monday backing fully autonomous vehicles that can save lives.

In a joint appearance, Anthony Foxx, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation and Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, released guidelines that encourage technology innovations from companies balanced with concerns over public safety. The guidelines provide a clear signal that federal regulators see automated car technology as a win for auto safety, according to The New York Times.

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Zients, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

During the joint appearance in Washington, the Department of Transportation released a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles. The DOT addressed a controversial issue, where several states had already enacted self-driving car testing regulations years ahead of the federal government. The DOT is calling for uniform policies applying to autonomous vehicles. The agency also clarified how current regulations can be applied to self-driving cars, and took a broad and open approach for new regulations to be issued on the technology.

The Obama administration has encouraged companies such as Tesla, Google, Apple, Ford, and other automakers and suppliers, to provide innovative and safe technologies to the nascent self-driving technology arena. The federal government does seem to acknowledge that the commercial interests of companies investing in self-driving car technologies must be acknowledged along with safety concerns from vehicle occupants and safety regulators. Recent news coverage of fatal crashes involving Tesla’s Autopilot semi-autonomous system has heightened the debate.

Balancing innovation and safety was emphasized by President Obama in an editorial published Monday in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about self-driving cars. The president said the technology could save tens of thousands of lives a year and that the new policy is “flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”

The new guidelines have been endorsed by several automakers. Ford issued a statement of support, saying that the guidance “will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. We also look forward to collaborating with states on areas that complement this national framework.”

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Google, Uber, and Lyft, also hailed the guidelines through their membership in the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets.

“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,” said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and former NHTSA administrator.

Ford and Google had previously made it clear they support fully autonomous vehicles as the best route for safety and efficient transportation. Foxx said that his agency will consider creating new federal standards for designs that remove the steering wheel and pedals from cars, according to USA Today.

The 15-point safety assessment covers a range of issues and will be carefully studied by regulators and automotive engineers. Some of the issues addressed include how self-driving cars should respond if their technology fails; measures to protect passenger privacy; how occupants will be protected in crashes; and how cyber security in autonomous vehicles should be approached.

The DOT made it clear that it can still recall semiautonomous and fully automated vehicles if they’re ruled to be unsafe. But the guidelines have remained more open and broad than the typical safety standards applied to traditional, human-driven vehicles.

“We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators,” said Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

New York Times