A Google self-driving car goes on a test drive in California in 2014.

A Google self-driving car goes on a test drive in California in 2014. Eric Risberg/AP file photo

The Transportation Department Is Getting Ready for the Driverless Car Era

New policies will make it easier for autonomous cars to hit the road.

With com­pan­ies from Gen­er­al Mo­tors and Ford to Google and Apple work­ing on tech­no­logy that could re­move the hu­man factor from driv­ing, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is start­ing to catch up.

In an ap­pear­ance at the North Amer­ic­an In­ter­na­tion­al Auto Show in De­troit, Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary An­thony Foxx de­tailed a 10-year in­vest­ment of nearly $4 bil­lion to smooth the trans­ition to autonom­ous vehicles. Flanked by ex­ec­ut­ives from Google, GM, Tesla, and oth­er auto­makers, Foxx said that driver­less cars had enorm­ous po­ten­tial “to save lives, re­duce green­house gas emis­sions, and trans­form mo­bil­ity for the Amer­ic­an people.”

“We are bullish on auto­mated vehicles,” Foxx said, adding that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would do what it could this year to get the tech­no­logy out there. 

The an­nounce­ment Thursday up­dates a 2013 policy is­sued by the Na­tion­al High­way Traffic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion to state that wide­spread de­ploy­ment of driver­less cars is now feas­ible. The pre­vi­ous guid­ance laid out some early defin­i­tions of autonom­ous driv­ing, but con­ceded that it was “too soon to reach con­clu­sions about the feas­ib­il­ity of pro­du­cing a vehicle that can safely op­er­ate in a fully auto­mated (or ‘driver­less’) mode in all driv­ing en­vir­on­ments and traffic scen­ari­os.”

With tech­no­logy mov­ing rap­idly—auto­makers have said they could have fully autonom­ous cars on the roads by 2020 and already some vehicles have sys­tems like self-park­ing and lane as­sist—the ad­min­is­tra­tion is now mak­ing sure it won’t stand in the way.

The de­part­ment will “con­sider seek­ing new au­thor­it­ies” that could en­sure autonom­ous vehicles are al­low­able if they can show an equi­val­ent or high­er level of safety than cur­rently avail­able, let­ting them on the road even as the gov­ern­ment reg­u­lat­ory pro­cess moves at its own pace. Man­u­fac­tur­ers will also be able to re­quest ex­emp­tion au­thor­ity to de­ploy new autonom­ous fea­tures. 

Foxx also an­nounced that over the next six months, NHTSA will work with in­dustry and oth­er stake­hold­ers to set new test­ing and ana­lys­is meth­ods for autonom­ous vehicles. At the same time, the agency will work with state trans­port­a­tion and mo­tor vehicle de­part­ments to de­vel­op a mod­el state policy, which could be used to form na­tion­al policy.

That re­view could help the DOT de­term­ine wheth­er new laws are needed on trans­port­a­tion, Foxx said. 

Autonom­ous vehicles have the po­ten­tial to com­pletely over­turn the trans­port­a­tion sys­tem—put­ting more cars on the road with few­er ac­ci­dents and less con­ges­tion—but there’s been con­cern about how the gov­ern­ment will reg­u­late the new tech­no­logy.   

Policy on autonom­ous vehicles had largely been driv­en at the state level, if at all, so the DOT an­nounce­ment was wel­come news to an in­dustry look­ing for some fed­er­al struc­ture. In an Oc­to­ber speech, Volvo CEO Håkan Samuels­son said the “ab­sence of one set of rules means car makers can­not con­duct cred­ible tests to de­vel­op cars that meet all the dif­fer­ent guidelines of all 50 US states.”

“The U.S. risks los­ing its lead­ing po­s­i­tion due to the lack of fed­er­al guidelines for the test­ing and cer­ti­fic­a­tion of autonom­ous vehicles,” he said.

The con­cern about a state-by-state patch­work came in­to sharp fo­cus in Decem­ber when the state of Cali­for­nia re­leased draft reg­u­la­tions re­quir­ing all autonom­ous cars to have a steer­ing wheel and ped­als to al­low a hu­man driver to take over. That would have barred the kind of hands-free car that Google is work­ing on in the state.

The five-year trans­port­a­tion bill passed by Con­gress in Novem­ber con­tained very little spe­cif­ic guid­ance on driver­less vehicles, al­though it did draw up a new in­nov­a­tion title to study driver­less vehicles and set up a new $75 mil­lion an­nu­al grant pro­gram for the tech­no­logy. In draft­ing the bill, mem­bers said they wanted tofoster new tech­no­logy, but without pre­script­ive lan­guage that could ham­string the in­dustry.

Ac­cord­ing to the Trans­port­a­tion De­part­ment, Pres­id­ent Obama’s fisc­al 2017 budget pro­pos­al, set to be re­leased on Feb. 9, will of­fer nearly $3.9 bil­lion over the next dec­ade for pi­lot pro­grams to test vehicles that op­er­ate without drivers, or vehicles that can com­mu­nic­ate with each oth­er and in­fra­struc­ture to help ease traffic prob­lems.

Speak­ing at a con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton on Wed­nes­day, Foxx noted the po­ten­tial chal­lenges of the new tech­no­logy, since the “pace of change is go­ing to be faster in the 21st cen­tury than in the 20th.”

“I don’t want us to be stuck in a place where tech­no­lo­gies are put through our paces on a 3- to 4-year win­dow be­cause you could be two or three gen­er­a­tions in­to that tech­no­logy in terms of cap­ab­il­ity, and the first gen­er­a­tion can’t reach the mar­ket yet,” he said at the Trans­port­a­tion Re­view Board’s an­nu­al con­fer­ence.