The US government is introducing a policy for self-driving cars designed to get safe driverless cars onto American roads sooner rather than later. Regulations for autonomous vehicles have so far been determined by a variety of often inconsistent or even non-existent state laws and rules. The new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy will finally begin to set up a national framework for not just putting algorithms in the driver's seat, but eventually doing away with that seat altogether.
The full policy will officially be introduced on Tuesday, September 20 by the Department of Transportation, but the White House released a preview of what's to be included late Monday.
Four main sections include a 15-point "safety assessment" to guide "the safe design, development, testing, and deployment of highly automated vehicles," a model for state policy that sticks to a national framework but still allows some independence for states, and exemptions that could help streamline the process of getting safe self-driving cars on the road.
In a conference call with reporters, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx explained how the policy will seek to answer one of the long-standing questions of self-driving technology – who is responsible in a car that may not have a driver in the traditional sense?
"Part of what we're doing with this policy is saying when the software is operating the vehicle, that is an area where we intend to regulate," Foxx said. "When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply."
The new policy has so far been met with enthusiasm by a burgeoning industry that until now has largely been left flailing in a regulatory void to navigate a hodgepodge of local laws and rules.
"We support guidance that provides for the standardization of self-driving policies across all 50 states, incentivizes innovation, supports rapid testing and deployment in the real world," David Strickland, spokesperson for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets said in a statement responding to the new policy.
The move comes as self-driving technologies have been attracting a rapidly increasing number of headlines. Special self-driving Uber cars are currently working the streets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as part of a partnership with Volvo and Lyft's co-founder made the bold prediction that private car ownership in cities could be over by 2025.
Old school American automakers like Ford are also getting behind the self-driving future, while newcomers such as Tesla may be among the US car companies that will be less than thrilled by the federal government's moves this week.
Alongside the new automated car policy, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will be emphasizing its recall authority over "semi-automated driving systems" like the "Autopilot" function that allows many Teslas on the road today to essentially drive themselves under the right conditions.
Tesla's Autopilot currently requires that human drivers be behind the wheel and alert enough to take over for the system at all times. This dynamic has been called in to question in recent months following a fatal accident involving a Tesla with the Autopilot allegedly engaged.
According to a statement from the White House, such systems "that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall."
So just telling people that they have to be responsible drivers, even in Autopilot, may no longer be enough in the eyes of the US government. Automakers could soon be required to find a way to "idiot-proof" such systems that are not considered fully autonomous.
A national regulatory framework for self-driving cars could remove the single most ominous hurdle standing in the way of mainstream adoption of the nascent technology. But the tech also has a ways to go before privately owned cars become a thing of the past. We all have nightmare stories of being guided the wrong way by navigation systems and such glitches will need to be fixed and the overall artificial intelligence at the core of self-driving systems will likely need to be upgraded before the real revolution can begin.
NHTSA says key parts of the new policy will go into effect right away, but the agency will also be taking public comment and consulting with experts to review the policy, with the plan that it be updated each year to reflect that input.
The US Department of Transportation (DoT) also plans to release a set of best practices for automakers to improve vehicle cybersecurity to cut down on hacking, not just for automated cars, but for all vehicles. The DoT will be proposing a new rule that all new vehicles must include the basic technology to transmit and receive safety messages, essentially extending those irritating emergency broadcast alerts to the operating systems of our cars themselves.