Federal Government Considering New Powers to Regulate Self-Driving Cars

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
federal government considering new powers to regulate self driving cars

The federal government doesn’t want to leave the issue of autonomous vehicle safety for states to decide, and may create new powers of oversight and approval for autonomous technology.

After president Barack Obama laid out his goals for the industry in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed yesterday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a set of voluntary guidelines to manufacturers today, asking them to prove their vehicles are safe before entering public roadways.

In the piece, Obama called for a “flexible” policy to ensure that autonomous vehicles conform to proper safety standards from state to state.

A new list of rules would provide “guidance that the manufacturers developing self-driving cars should follow to keep us safe,” Obama said. He added, “And we’re asking them to sign a 15-point safety checklist showing not just the government, but every interested American, how they’re doing it.”

That checklist would require manufacturers to provide information on vehicle testing, backup systems to prevent disaster in the event of a computer failure, crash safety and data recording.

In a press conference today, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would seek to make the 15-point “safety assessment” mandatory via the regulatory process, Reuters reports.

Obama claimed that the new rules, which could eventually include the federal government’s ability to pull self-driving vehicles off the road if deemed unsafe, aim to bolster public confidence in the safety of the emerging technology. Autonomous vehicles have the power to improve mobility for seniors and the disabled, he said, as well as the “potential to create new jobs and render other jobs obsolete.”

Resources, job training, and — of course — regulations must be in place for the sector to grow, he claims.

The op-ed didn’t make it to a Pittsburgh paper by accident. Uber is aggressively developing autonomous driving technology in that city, employing a fleet of self-driving Volvos. Pittsburgh is the site of the inaugural White House Frontiers Conference on October 13, focusing on innovation.

Michigan remains ground zero for autonomous vehicle development, with the state Senate recently approving a series of bills designed to allow self-driving vehicles to operate on many roadways. Numerous automakers, some working alongside state government and post-secondary institutions, have created testing programs in that state. Ride-sharing companies and tech giants like Google are also involved.

If the federal government does take a bigger hand in the approval and regulation of self-driving vehicles, it would require the creation of a new regulatory apparatus.

In a conference call yesterday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said a premarket approval system “would require a lot more upfront discussion, dialogue and staffing on our part,” according to Reuters.

Foxx claimed the federal intervention in the sector aims to prevent a “patchwork” of state regulations concerning self-driving vehicles. He wants public and industry comment on whether the government should seek premarket approval power for autonomous technology.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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  • Wheatridger Wheatridger on Sep 20, 2016

    It's absurd to "leave it up to the states" in this case -- and that would be the manufacturers' worst nightmare. Cars are literally the vehicles of interstate commerce, and that's the proper arena for federal legislation. Every prevailing interpretation of the Constitution agrees. Then there's the matter of practicality and resources. Michigan might have the expertise to do a good job on this issue, but it doesn't have the available funding. And what about Idaho and Louisiana, how would states like that fare in setting up their own Autonomous Vehicle testing programs. Would New Mexico's testing parameters be relevant in Maine? Pity the driver whose car's automation becomes unavailable as it crosses state lines. (Some drivers do that often - thinking of you, Kansas City). Pity the carmakers who must collaborate with 50 separate state agencies doing the same work... and then watch California do something entirely different that determines the real market. Actually, if this foolish approach was taken, It would be California, with its ties to the tech industry and its clout in the market, that would set the de facto standards for everyone, and non-Californians would have little or no input to the process. Pity the fools -- modern Confederates, in spirit -- who believe that Big Government is the source of all evils. This is a big country, with very big businesses influencing everything that happens. A swarm of small governments can't deal with that effectively, IMHO.

  • PartsUnknown PartsUnknown on Sep 21, 2016

    Can someone explain to me where the demand for autonomous cars is coming from? This is a genuine question. I truly have no idea where the push is coming from. My non-car enthusiast friends and family (pretty much everyone) react with bemusement when I mention what might be coming. They shrug, jump in their Tahoe and drive home. US consumers are buying SUVs/CUVs in record numbers. Hybrids have become mainstream, but still represent a fraction of total sales. Another emerging technology, the EV, is but a flyspeck on the map and the most viable, well-known example is priced out of reach of 99% of buyers. Who is it, exactly, that is clamoring for self-driving cars to have the likes of the federal government, Google and everyone else jumping through hoops to get them to market? It sure isn't me.

    • See 4 previous
    • VoGo VoGo on Sep 21, 2016

      @PartsUnknown Henry Ford: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Early adapters will be taxi/Uber drivers and truckers. The business case is obvious and adoption will come as soon as the technology allows.