US government announces driverless car regulations

The US government has announced the publication of a new federal policy designed to aid the smooth introduction of self-driving vehicles.

In a bid to move away from a traditionally reactive approach to vehicle regulation – enforcing safety standards after a vehicle has been sold – the new policy is designed to be proactive, setting out safety standards for car-makers developing autonomous driving technologies.

Announced by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy aims to lay a path for the safe testing and deployment of new vehicle technologies.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. 

“This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”

The new regulations set out guidance in four particular areas:

  • Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles
  • Model State Policy
  • NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools
  • New Tools and Authorities

The Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles section outlines best practices for the safe design, development and testing of automated vehicles prior to their commercial sale or operation on public roads.

Notably, it includes a 15-point ‘Safety Assessment’ that car-makers are asked to sign and submit to certify that their autonomous vehicles are safe to use on public roads.  

In the seven-and-a-half years of my presidency, self-driving cars have gone from sci-fi fantasy to an emerging reality with the potential to transform the way we live.
— President Obama, writing in the 'Pittsburgh Post-Gazette'

The Model State Policy framework aims to help differentiate between federal and state responsibilities for driverless car regulations.

In particular, it has a goal of establishing a consistent national framework for the testing and use of self-driving cars, to avoid having a patchwork of incompatible laws between different US states.

The framework is informed by the DOT’s work with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators – a collaboration to explore autonomous vehicle policies.

The policy also clarifies the role of the current regulatory tools used by NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). NHTSA will continue to exercise its regulatory authority over self-driving vehicles using these tools, including its ability to recall vehicles or equipment that it considers pose an unreasonable safety risk.

Ninety-four percent of crashes on U.S. roadways are caused by a human choice or error.

We are moving forward on the safe deployment of automated technologies because of the enormous promise they hold to address the overwhelming majority of crashes and save lives.
— NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind

The Agency has also prepared a new guidance document and has streamlined its review process – for example, committing to issuing simple autonomous vehicle-related interpretations within 60 days.

Finally, the policy discusses the potential need for new tools, authorities and regulatory structures to support the safe and efficient development of autonomous vehicles.

The DOT will continue to solicit public comments on the policy, and plans to update it annually. 

In a briefing ahead of the policy launch, the White House said that automated vehicles, if tested and deployed safely, could provide “transformative” benefits in areas such as safety, mobility, productivity and sustainability.