“We have to get it right”: As the US lays out new rules for self-driving cars, Obama explains why

Ready to roll.
Ready to roll.
Image: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
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Self-driving cars are quickly moving from science fiction to reality, and the US government is trying not to pump the breaks.

This morning (Sept. 20), the US Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a new policy document on how it plans to handle self-driving cars at a national level. The Department’s head, Anthony Foxx, first announced that the DOT would be releasing guidelines on autonomous vehicles in January, as the Obama administration pledged $4 billion to help usher in safe, reliable self-driving cars. And Obama, with just months left in his tenure as president, seems to be doubling down to make this part of his legacy.

In an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the president reaffirmed his intention to leave US roadways safer than he found them. The president outlined the new rules that the DOT would be releasing today, saying that his administration aims to be flexible in the way that it deals with the nascent technology, so as to not hinder innovation, but also ensure that self-driving cars can be brought to US highways in a way that can reduce the number of driving deaths, rather than increase them. There’s some reason for urgency on that goal: According to the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 35,092 people died on US roads in 2015, up 7% from the year before.

“There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe,” Obama wrote in the Post-Gazette. “That’s the general principle here. What’s more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies.”

Image for article titled “We have to get it right”: As the US lays out new rules for self-driving cars, Obama explains why

Regulation around self-driving cars has been patchwork at best, with some states passing laws allowing for self-driving cars to be tested on their roads, and others refusing to do so. Right now, only Florida allows autonomous vehicles to drive on its roads without a person behind the wheel, and eight other states allow autonomous vehicles to be tested in some capacity, as long as there is a human driver that can take over as needed. The DOT’s rules will aim to set a national framework through which these vehicles can be tested and deployed, while also ensuring that road rules traditionally set by states—such as speed limits—remain intact.

“We’re also giving guidance to states on how to wisely regulate these new technologies, so that when a self-driving car crosses from Ohio into Pennsylvania, its passengers can be confident that other vehicles will be just as responsibly deployed and just as safe,” the president wrote.

The DOT’s new guidelines are broken down into four categories:

  • Vehicle performance guidance for automated vehicles. These guidelines will serve as a set of best practices for automakers to follow when designing, testing, and building self-driving vehicles. They will evolve as the technology does, according to the DOT.
  • Model state policy. This will ensure that the road regulations that states currently control will not be any different with autonomous vehicles. “A manufacturer should be able to focus on developing a single HAV [highly automated vehicle] fleet rather than 50 different versions to meet individual state requirements,” the DOT’s guidelines state.
  • NHTSA’s current regulatory tools. The NHTSA has the authority to recall any vehicle or piece of automotive equipment in the US that it deems to be unsafe. The administration will be able to provide automakers with special HAV-related interpretations of existing regulations when asked in 60 days, and create autonomous car exemptions within six months (which is apparently very quick for the administration).
  • New tools and authorities. As the notion of a car changes, so too may the ways the US regulates them. The DOT has not committed to any new ways of working yet, but said it may look at how other government agencies handle complicated technological regulation. For example, the US Federal Aviation Administration uses a process called pre-market approval to “regulate the safety of complex, software-driven products like autopilot systems on commercial aircraft, and unmanned aircraft systems,” which the DOT says could potentially apply to the way it regulates self-driving cars.

The agency said it expects to flesh out more fully these guidelines in the future, and aims to do additional research in areas such as “benefits assessment, human factors, cybersecurity, performance metrics, objective testing, and others as they are identified in the future.” The full guidelines can be read on the DOT’s website.

Many automakers and Silicon Valley companies, ranging from Ford and Volvo to Google and Baidu, are rushing to bring self-driving vehicles to market, with many promising to having either self-driving taxi services or fully autonomous vehicles by the start of the next decade. Tesla has also started rolling out cars with the capability to drive themselves in a limited capacity, but crashes and deaths have spurred discussion about whether the technology is ready.

Last week, Uber upended the finish line that its competitors had all been racing towards by starting to offer free rides in its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Unlike other demonstrations of autonomous tech from companies such as Ford or Google, Uber’s cars are not on some private, desolate test track in the middle of nowhere: They are on public roads, surrounded by real humans. Pittsburgh’s mayor, Bill Peduto, has become an proponent of the technology in recent months, which makes Obama’s decision to choose the city’s local newspaper for his op-ed all the more fitting. “We have created a startup government that recognizes when it comes to innovation, regulation never comes first,” Peduto recently told Quartz.

But the president argued that speedy innovation, while necessary to spur economic growth, can’t come at the cost of safety:

Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow.