Transportation Department to ease the way for self-driving cars

Self-driving cars are one step closer to a wider debut on public roads: The Transportation Department said Thursday that federal guidelines for how autonomous vehicles should operate, as well as a model state policy, would be developed within six months.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx also announced that the Obama administration will spend $3.9 billion over the next 10 years on pilot programs to test connected vehicles — cars that can use the Internet to communicate with one another and with other devices — in designated areas throughout the country. He said these projects would accelerate the development of safety in self-driving cars.

Foxx touted the advance of technology and the potential for safer roads.

“What happens if human error could be eliminated?” he said during Thursday’s news conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

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He said his department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would work with the states and other government entities to create a model state policy to allow automated vehicles on public roads.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transform mobility for the American people,” Foxx said in a statement. "Automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible."

The announcement marks a sharp turn from the federal government's stance three years ago, when the Transportation Department said self-driving cars should be limited to testing and not "authorized for use" by the general public for driving.

In November, Foxx ordered NHTSA to revise that policy in light of new technology.

A month ago, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released draft rules for self-driving cars, requiring that the vehicles have a steering wheel and a human driver ready to take control if necessary. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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12:26 p.m.: This article was updated with comments by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

This article was originally published at 11:22 a.m.

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