To fast-track to a future where cars drive themselves, the freewheeling tech world and the historically buttoned-up auto industry joined forces to develop autonomous vehicles.
But behind the rapid-fire innovation of the last few years, questions loomed over whether the federal government would welcome the complete overhaul of driving as we know it — or if it would put up regulatory roadblocks to slow the industry's efforts.
Now it appears that robot cars are getting the green light. On Tuesday, the Department of Transportation marked a milestone when it issued far-reaching — yet flexible — guidelines that pave the way for self-driving cars to hit the roads without much red tape.
It’s a victory for innovation: Silicon Valley stalwarts have long complained of too much oversight, while automakers fretted that there wasn’t a clear road map for how to roll out autonomous vehicles. The 116-page document released by the department squarely puts tech companies, carmakers and the government on the same side.
“Self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live,” President Obama said in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed in which he touted the new guidelines. “Regulation can go too far. Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That’s why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”
The timing couldn’t be better, and comes after criticism that the federal government has lagged behind driverless progress. Autonomous and semi-autonomous cars are being developed by nearly every automaker. Ride-hailing services are ready to ditch their human drivers and switch to driverless as soon as possible — Uber this month rolled out a small fleet of driverless cars in Pittsburgh. Consumers are getting used to the idea of letting go of the steering wheel and ceding full control to a car.
Driverless cars are seen as a boon to safety, a remedy for traffic and parking congestion, and a means to greater productivity (or entertainment) as hours of commuting time are devoted to better purposes.
Automakers say they won’t have completely driverless cars ready to sell until 2021 at least, but high-end cars today are increasingly loaded with technologies that enable the car to drive itself on highways much of the time, such as Tesla’s Autopilot feature.
What’s most notable about the document — which was issued by the Transportation Department and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which it oversees — is that it’s filled with mostly loose guidelines, not hard regulations.
The guidelines include a request that makers of driverless vehicles fill out a 15-point safety and performance checklist that the public can see. States are offered recommendations on unified rules. And all parties are put on notice that new rules on autonomous technology might be issued in the future.
”Make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road,” Obama said. “We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety.”
For the most part, the guidelines are drawing guarded praise — from parties concerned most about innovation to those focused primarily on safety.
“The administration clearly heard the concerns raised by safety advocates and has addressed many of them,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog.
“The biggest part of this is psychological and attitudinal,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a lawyer and specialist in autonomous driving law and regulation at the University of South Carolina. The Transportation Department “is signaling it really gets automated driving,” he said.
The guidelines are also being lauded by some members of Congress, including Debbie Dingell, a Democrat from the heart of the U.S. auto industry in southeast Michigan.
“We’re competing in a world marketplace,” she said. “I want to make sure the U.S. stays at the forefront of autonomous vehicle technology.”
Despite its support for driverless cars, the government does make clear that it retains a regulatory hammer to issue recalls or take other measures if vehicles are threatening public safety, whether software is driving the car or not.
Anthony Foxx, secretary of the Transportation Department, said Tuesday that technology moves so fast that its policy paper should be considered “a living document” that leaves room for “more growth and changes in the future.”
“One of the reasons we take great pains not to be so prescriptive” is because the technology is “dynamic” and changing fast, he said, so the government needs to be flexible.
Some, however, want more prescription. Joan Claybrook, a consumer advocate who ran NHTSA in the Carter administration, called the guidelines “a definite improvement” but says they’re too vague.
“What’s not clear is whether or not they’re really going to regulate” driverless cars in the future, she said.
Both NHTSA and the Transportation Department are upfront about their desire to get more autonomous cars on the roadways. NHTSA’s core mission is traffic safety; its leadership believes driverless cars can significantly reduce vehicle crashes and traffic deaths. About 94% of the 35,200 deaths in 2015 were due to human error, the agency points out.
The Transportation Department said it plans to release the first revision of its driverless policies “sometime within the next year” and was looking to get public and industry input on the guidelines. It also noted that it will apply its existing authority even to semi-autonomous cars.