The Obama administration said Monday it was considering seeking the power to review and approve technology for self-driving cars before they hit the road and said US states should not set individual rules regulating fully self-driving vehicles. The US Transportation Department, in its most comprehensive statement yet on autonomous cars, also urged automakers in new voluntary guidelines to sign and submit to certify a safety assessment that their highly automated vehicles were ready for public roads.
Automakers and technology companies are racing to develop vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time, and have complained that state and federal safety rules impede the process. The guidelines call for federal oversight of ethical issues such as which of two obstacles a self-driving car should be programmed to hit when a collision cannot be avoided.
Fifteen factors outlined include ways to ensure that the technology works properly, data recording and sharing, a vehicle’s ability to survive a crash and how it would behave after a crash. The government currently allows automakers to self-certify that vehicles comply with safety standards. US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on a conference call with reporters that a new premarket approval system overseen by the government would “would require a lot more upfront discussion, dialogue and staffing on our part.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been investigating Tesla Motors Inc’s Autopilot system since June because of a May 7 fatal crash in Florida in which the system was in use. The Autopilot system, which allows drivers to keep their hands off the wheels for extended periods, did not require any preapproval by NHTSA for use by owners.
On another issue, the administration’s guidance sides with Alphabet Inc’s Google unit by calling for the federal government, not states, to set the rules governing vehicles driven by computers. Google criticized California last year when the state proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars. A person briefed on the guidelines prior to their release on Tuesday said they urge states not to require the presence of a licensed driver in the driver seat when a highly automated vehicle is in operation. The person requested anonymity because the guidelines had not yet been made public.
“When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply,” Foxx told reporters on a conference call on Monday. The goal is to “avoid a patchwork of state laws,” he added.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles said in a statement on Monday that it would not comment until it saw the guidelines, but said it planned to release revised draft regulations in the coming weeks. The state of Michigan, in contrast, is moving to adopt legislation to no longer require a licensed driver in a self-driving car while testing on public roads.
Gloria Bergquist, a spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing major automakers, said in a statement that the government’s goal should be to “avoid policies that become outdated and inadvertently limit progress in reducing the number of crashes and saving lives.”