Driverless cars on public highways? Go for it, Trump administration says

Uber employees test a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid car in Pittsburgh in August 2016.
(Jared Wickerham / Associated Press)

Go for it! In essence, that’s the Trump administration’s new directive on driverless-car development.

Under those guidelines, automakers and technology companies will be asked to voluntarily submit safety assessments to the U.S. Department of Transportation, but they don’t have to do it.

And states are being advised to use a light regulatory hand.

At a driverless-car test track in Ann Arbor, Mich., Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao painted a near future of greater safety, fewer deaths, higher productivity and more time spent with loved ones as robots increasingly take over the tasks of driving and commuters are freed for other activities.


She unveiled a document titled “Vision for Safety 2.0” and delivered a speech that was strong on vision and light on regulation.

“More than 35,000 people perish every year in vehicle crashes,” she said — 94% of those through driver error. After years of decline, fatalities are growing, she said. “Automated driving systems hold the promise of significantly reducing these errors and saving tens of thousands of lives in the process.”

Although the Vision document is vague, Congress is likely to pack on some meat. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that eventually would let automakers each put as many as 25,000 cars on the road even if some features don’t meet current safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The cap would rise over a four-year period, allowing each automaker to field 275,000 driverless cars by the end of that period..

The House bill would require safety assessments, but permission to test would not be required. States would be required to follow federal regulations.

The Senate is considering a similar bill, though the Commerce Committee will consider at a Wednesday hearing whether to exempt trucks from the law. Labor unions fear that driverless technology could lead to job losses. Chao, who has expressed similar concerns in the past, said she’s working closely with Congress on the matter.

She was joined at Tuesday’s announcement by Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, who said fully autonomous vehicles offer “an unprecedented opportunity to bring equal access to people with disabilities.”


Although widespread use of driverless cars is at least several years away, automakers and technology companies are making rapid progress, and features — such as automatic braking and adaptive cruise control — are already available on many new vehicles.

Tesla’s Autopilot feature, for example, enables the vehicle to pass cars automatically on the freeway. An option on the new Cadillac CT6 enables drivers to cruise along a freeway lane for hours without driver intervention. Even models from relatively inexpensive makers such as Hyundai, Mazda, Kia and Subaru offer automatic braking to avoid rear ending the car ahead.

Not everyone was happy with Chao’s announcement. Some consumer groups, which already thought the Obama administration’s standards were too lax, criticized a further pullback from government regulation.

“This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”

Two House Democrats, Frank Pallone Jr. of New Jersey and Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, issued a statement that calls Chao’s move a step backward: “The administration chose to cave to industry and pressure the states into not acting.”

But driverless-vehicle proponents cheered Chao’s presentation. “This is great news. Over-regulating autonomous vehicles will slow down the adoption of a technology which will create millions of new high-paying jobs across the United States and make roads safer for all Americans,” driverless industry consultant Grayson Brulte said.


Mitch Bainwol, chief executive of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobby group, appeared at the Chao event and said, “The future is not something we should be afraid of or try to slow down.”

The new standards replace guidelines published by the Obama administration in September 2016 that asked automakers to voluntarily submit reports on a 15-point “safety assessment.” They were also urged, but not required, to defer to federal rules on safety. Chao did not criticize those guidelines, but called them “Vision for Safety 1.0.”

“The new policy adjusts the tone but continues much of the substance of (the Obama administration) document,” said Bryant Walker Smith, law professor at the University of South Carolina. “It clearly reflects the input of the traditional automotive industry but doesn’t exclude potential new entrants such as Waymo.”

The previous approach, however, didn’t eliminate a patchwork of state-by-state regulations. California’s regulations, for example, are considered fairly strict. Florida, Michigan and Arizona barely regulate driverless cars.

The new “Vision for Safety” advises state officials to remain technology-neutral and not favor traditional automakers over technology companies; to remove regulatory barriers that keep driverless cars off the roads; and to make the federal Transportation Department’s voluntary recommendations into law.

New legislation that emerges from Congress, however, could have more serious implications for state regulations. Under the House bill, California and other states could not bar driverless cars allowed under federal law.


How that might affect a new set of driverless regulations that California officials plan to unveil by the end of the year is unclear. The state Department of Motor Vehicles, which regulates driverless cars, said in a prepared statement that it is reviewing the new federal guidelines.

Transportation officials from both administrations consider driver-assist technology and autonomous cars to be essential safety features that could dramatically reduce collisions, injuries and deaths.

The vast majority of traffic collisions are caused by human driver error, federal safety statistics show. Fatalities have been rising in recent years as cellphones and other distracting devices have become more popular.

In 2016, U.S. highway traffic deaths rose 6%, to about 40,000.

Twitter: @russ1mitchell



People are still wary of self-driving cars, but reluctance drops after they try driver-assist features, study says

China is banning traditional auto engines. Its aim: electric car domination

Mercedes commits to hydrogen fuel with GLC F-Cell hybrid


4 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional reaction, context and analysis.

This article was originally published at 11:20 a.m.