Innovation

US DOT unveils 'world's first autonomous vehicle policy,' ushering in age of driverless cars

The US federal government stepped in on Tuesday to make some guidelines for 'highly automated vehicles.' Here are the main takeaways, and what the experts say about it.

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US DOT's Secretary of Transportation, Anthony R. Foxx unveils federal guidelines for automated vehicles, September 20, 2016.

Image: US Department of Transportation

"Today, we put forward the first federal policy on automated vehicles," said US Department of Transportation's Secretary of Transportation, Anthony R. Foxx. "The most comprehensive national, automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen."

The highly-anticipated policy for autonomous vehicles focuses on what the department calls "highly automated vehicles," in which a driver is able to regain control—like Tesla's Autopilot. The guidelines also set performance standards for self-driving cars and offers guidelines for how states can legislate autonomous vehicles.

"For DOT, the excitement around highly automated vehicles starts with safety," the DOT wrote in the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, issued on September 20, 2016.

During the press conference, Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway and Safety Transportation Administration, said the goal is to "create a path to fully-autonomous technology."

Here are some main takeaways:

  • Safety. The DOT guidelines include a "15 Point Safety Assessment" for manufacturers, developers and other organizations for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles. "We are laying out issues to be resolved," said Foxx.
  • Model state policy. This outlines differences between federal and state "responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles," giving recommendations for states, in terms of policy, "with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles."
  • NHTSA's current regulatory tools. The DOT guidelines outline current rules "for testing of nontraditional vehicle designs in a more timely fashion," according to the press release. "We recognize that this is a dynamic environment, and want to be flexible," Foxx said. "The rulemaking process can take quite some time. We want to set a context where everybody knows the rules of the road."
  • Modern regulatory tools. This section looks at tools policymakers can use "in the future to aid the safe and efficient deployment of new lifesaving technologies."

So what do the experts think?

"It sounds reasonable and flexible enough to accommodate continued technological development while observing safety," said John Dolan, a principal systems scientist in the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.

Other autonomous driving experts agreed. "It's a good starting point," said Jeffrey Miller, an associate professor of engineering practice at the University of Southern California. "They are not overly restrictive as to provide a hindrance to the manufacturers, but they provide some guidance as to the expectations of driverless vehicles.

SEE: Tesla's Master Plan 2.0: AI experts, auto insiders, and Tesla customers weigh in (TechRepublic)

"I feel this is NHTSA's way of saying that they understand the technology is coming, but they want to see what manufacturers develop before providing more regulations," Miller said. "This is a relatively new technology still, and over-regulation may hurt advancement."

Miller also said he was "pleased to see the ethical considerations bullet in the guidelines."

Michael Ramsey, autonomous vehicle analyst at Gartner, shared a different perspective. "The guidelines show an administration that is anxious to see these technologies deployed. They put a lot of documentation requirements onto the automaker and give best practices advice, but don't mandate very much or tell them how to do it.

"The request for all automakers to develop systems to gather data and distribute the data about how their vehicles are performing to other companies is among the most interesting," said Ramsey.

SEE: Tesla driver dies in first fatality with Autopilot: What it means for the future of driverless cars (TechRepublic)

Concerns? Bryant Walker Smith, one of the leading experts in the legal aspects of autonomous driving, wonders if the model state policy will be "permissive or restrictive, particularly with respect to actual demonstration projects and even commercial deployments."

And Dolan says he worries about the section involving NHTSA's recall authority. "I would like to know more about how they will make determinations about what constitutes an unsafe semi-automated driving system," said Dolan.

"Like any such authority," he said, "if it errs too much on the side of caution, or is too broadly or indiscriminately applied, it could slow innovation."

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About Hope Reese

Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.

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