By on September 20, 2016


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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23 Comments on “Federal Government Considering New Powers to Regulate Self-Driving Cars...”

  • avatar

    All I see in the illustration is a man on his phone who’s walked out in front of a speeding car in a city street, which has the right of way.

    He’s chosen his fate, the government need not interfere.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I agree with all of this – including the President’s op-ed piece – but the government should also rethink what types of autonomy it will permit on the roads, and alter the definitions.

    Arguably, Level 2 autonomy is doing more harm than good due to consumer misunderstandings and technological shortcomings. Level 4 or 5 is what consumers think of as “autonomy”, not “I must help the robot do its job at all times, just in case.”

  • avatar

    I certainly hope they will mandate technologies rather than outcomes.

    • 0 avatar

      They’ll regulate both, just to be safe.

    • 0 avatar

      Why would you want this? Modern thinking is that the better regulatory strategy is to define the desired outcome, and leave it to industry/science to determine the best way to achieve the result.

      Mandating technology rather than outcome is how we were stuck with the sealed-beam headlight long after there were better technologies available.

  • avatar

    The feds don’t have the ability to create new powers, that’s unconstitutional, though Congress quietly ignores the Constitution, backing off only when the public strenuously objects. That’s been Congress’ M.O. for quite awhile now.

    They already have the power to establish federal health and safety rules and write them in such a way as to supersede state regulations. It’s probably not Congress but federal regulators who hate to see state oversight usurp their presumed authority. The regulators saw CARB (California Air Resources Board) become a partner with EPA over auto emissions and don’t want to see that again.

  • avatar

    The image, especially with the inset, makes me believe the vehicle has “locked-on” to the pedestrian, and the driver has “good tone”, hence mashing the fox-four pedal. Splash one jaywalker.

    • 0 avatar

      Death Race 2020.

    • 0 avatar

      Another voice: As Corey,Kenmore and you have commented on the illustration here’s another option/observation. The car was stopped, light just turned green, driver pays no attention to pedestrian in crosswalk and accelerates. Pedestrian is far enough now that he will be out of the way by the time the vehicle reaches the crosswalk itself (basically two more strides before car reaches crosswalk). Not saying you folks are wrong as we are all interpreting the illustration from our own assumptions presented by that illustration. I always learn something by reading the B&B’s comments. Have a good one!

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

    • 0 avatar

      If autonomous cars work as advertised, then fatalities should fall sharply.

      You probably weren’t demanding an internet before it existed, but here you are using it along with the rest of us.

      • 0 avatar

        Pch – I understand that a benefit of autonomous cars is reduced fatalities. I’m asking more about where the demand is coming from. I know it’s just little old me here in Massachusetts, but I do not know a single person who has the slightest notion about self-driving cars. It seems like the push for this technology is coming from the supply side.

        I get your comment about the internet, but don’t think it’s exactly analogous. The leap from newspapers, magazines and phone books to the internet was massive whereas the leap from my “normal” Volvo to a self-driving Volvo seems less consequential. Just my opinion. Thanks for responding.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ll take your post seriously and answer it. The short answer is that a lot of people want autonomous vehicles (AVs). Older or disabled people who want to be mobile, but really can’t drive well need AVs. Parents who work and have kids who need to be shuttled around to practice, school and playdates. Anyone who commutes to work and would rather use that time productively.

      The first manufacturer that offers a decent one for $40K that can drive as well as I do gets my money.

      • 0 avatar

        VoGo – interesting, and again, those seem like viable benefits from autonomous cars. But aside from stating that a lot of people want them, where is the data? Is there actual demand? I love driving too much and would never spend a nickel on a self-driver.

        As I stated to Pch above, it seems to me that this technology is being pushed from the top down by tech companies, government agencies and automakers without determining what the adoption rates would be.

        Anyway, thanks for responding. This will be interesting to watch.

        • 0 avatar

          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.

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