New Autonomous Car Rules Are Coming—Sort Of

By: Bridget Clerkin October 22, 2018
The Department of Transportation's latest self-driving cars report is missing a key guideline of previous iterations: there's no mention of needing a steering wheel or pedals.
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Third time’s the charm?

Almost one full year after the Department of Transportation (DOT) revised the nation’s first set of official guidelines for autonomous cars, the government agency is at it again.

A new report released last week outlines an updated wish list from the DOT on how the new-age vehicles should be regulated. Called Automated Vehicles 3.0, the 80-page report touches on everything from safety features included in the cars to best practices for state and local government offices looking to adapt their roads—and rules—to the technology.

Yet one provision in particular has a number of auto industry insiders excited—and some watchdog groups nervous.

The paper leaves open the possibility for car makers to explore the production of self-driving cars that are built without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals.

Previously, the machinery had been determined a necessity by the agency, at least in the case of standing in for an emergency backup. Though in the absence of federal law mandating how the vehicles should operate, a number of states have allowed for models without steering wheels or pedals to roam their roads.

Indeed, Google’s self-driving spin-off company, Waymo, has been amassing an armada of autonomous cars free of steering wheels or pedals in Arizona as the company has worked to expand its “Early Rider” program there.

It’s important to note, too, that Waymo was also pivotal in lobbying for previous rule changes from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that technically allowed them to test the vehicles on public streets.

But with this technology now much more widely accepted, the DOT says the rule update is necessary to adapt to the times. It will also serve to modernize the list of 75 auto safety standards car manufacturers must currently follow—most of which revolve around the idea of a vehicle expressly driven by a human.

Still, like the previous two reports issued on the subject, the DOT’s latest release represents a list of mere suggestions. It’s likely the auto world will take them to heart, but barring a major change in the Senate, any official laws on how autonomous cars should be made will still be stuck in Congressional congestion.

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