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

Featured eBooks
Issues in City and County Management
Digital First
The Cybersecurity Challenge
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.