Federal Rules for Self-Driving Cars En Route

By: Bridget Clerkin June 13, 2016
The NHTSA is set to release new rules for autonomous vehicles.
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Autonomous vehicles may be able to operate themselves, but when it comes to which road the technology will take moving forward, the federal government is now in the driver’s seat.

Federal regulations governing self-driving cars will be released next month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), according to the group’s senior administrator, Mark Rosekind.

The list of rules will focus on four main concerns, Rosekind said:

  • Deployment and operational guidance of the cars.
  • Creating uniform policies about the vehicles in each state.
  • Specifically defining any exemptions from those policies.
  • Finding “new tools of authorities” to help the technology get onto the roads more quickly.

The regulations, which will be officially introduced next month by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, incorporate suggestions taken from more than 60 public comment sessions on the subject, which saw contributors ranging from automakers to tech company representatives and topics of discussion spanning from legal semantics to security logistics.

The sheer breadth of the issue has caused a number of hiccups, delays, and lingering questions for smaller agencies attempting to tackle the subject. At least 15 states so far have attempted to write some form of legislation on the topic, all of which have come up with different definitions and legal scopes, according to Google self-driving car project Chief Technology Officer Chris Urmson.

First in line at attempting to articulate the issue was the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), which—after dealing with several missed deadlines—announced its own set of rules regarding self-driving cars late last year, including the regulation that any self-driving vehicles in the state would need to include a steering wheel and pedals.

That requirement was thrown into dispute several months later, after the NHTSA declared that the autonomous technology itself could be considered the legal driver of the vehicle, clearing the way for the amenity-free models and leaving the CA DMV unsure of how to regulate its own rules.

The potential for such legal quandaries have led other states to abstain from the movement all together—another reason why regulating the issue from a national level is so important, Rosekind said.

The overarching rulebook could also help solve the problem of pitting plodding and cumbersome government establishments against a nimble and booming new technological field.

Without going into specifics, Rosekind hinted that the NHTSA could adopt a more adaptable approach from a national standpoint, instead of letting each state labor over specific laws and policies that are seemingly outdated by technological developments as soon as they’re approved.

He added that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also didn’t have to necessarily be the only agency handling the topic, and suggested that a new spin-off department devoted entirely to autonomous vehicles could emerge from the national organization.

But regardless of how the policies could—and would—shift under the NHTSA, the government agency would always hold one thing as paramount: the safety of American drivers, Rosekind said.

Speaking at an automotive conference in Michigan this week, he said that self-driving cars would have to boost safety by at least twofold to be considered useful in the fight against the rising number of motor vehicle fatalities in the country.

“We need to set a higher bar if we expect safety to actually be a benefit here, as opposed to just an equivalency,” Rosekind affirmed.

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