US Department of Transportation releases self-driving car guidelines

ANN ARBOR, Mich. – U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced updated safety guidelines for self-driving vehicles Tuesday during a visit to a Michigan vehicle testing facility.

The new guidelines can be viewed here.

“The new Guidance supports further development of this important new technology, which has the potential to change the way we travel and how we deliver goods and services,” said Chao. “The safe deployment of automated vehicle technologies means we can look forward to a future with fewer traffic fatalities and increased mobility for all Americans.”

Chao said months ago that she was reviewing guidelines issued last fall by the Obama administration. Under those largely voluntary guidelines, automakers are supposed to follow a 15-point safety assessment before putting test vehicles on the road. The guidelines also made clear that the federal government - not states - would determine whether the vehicles were safe.

The Trump administration is expected to keep the guidelines voluntary but streamline them. Chao also is expected to give clearer direction to states. Under the Obama guidelines, states could still decide whether or not they want automated test vehicles on their roads.

Regulators and lawmakers have been struggling to keep up with the pace of self-driving technology. They are wary of burdening automakers and tech companies with regulations that would slow innovation, but they need to ensure that the vehicles are safely deployed. There are no fully self-driving vehicles for sale, but autonomous cars with backup drivers are being tested in numerous states, including California, Nevada and Pennsylvania.

Autonomous vehicle developers, including automakers and tech companies like Google and Uber, say autonomous vehicles could dramatically reduce crashes but complain that the patchwork of state laws passed in recent years could hamper their deployment. Early estimates indicate there were more than 40,000 traffic fatalities in the U.S. last year; government says 94 percent of crashes involve human error.

Consumer and safety advocates are concerned that untested, experimental cars could get on public roads too soon, and accidents could undermine public acceptance of the technology.

Chao's appearance at Mcity, an autonomous vehicle testing facility at the University of Michigan, came the same day that the National Transportation Safety Board was debating whether Tesla Inc.'s partially self-driving Autopilot system shared the blame for the 2016 death of a driver in Florida.

So far, the government has mostly sided with automakers and tech companies.

The U.S. House voted last week to give the federal government the authority to exempt automakers from safety standards that don't apply to the technology. If a company can prove it can make a safe vehicle with no steering wheel, for example, the federal government could approve that. The bill permits the deployment of up to 25,000 vehicles in its first year and 100,000 annually after that.

The Senate is now considering a similar bill.

Under the Obama guidelines, automakers were asked to document how self-driving cars detect and avoid objects and pedestrians, how they are protected against cyberattacks and what sort of backup system is in place in case the computers fail.

Obama's policy also required the government to consider adopting new authorities, including methods to test autonomous vehicles before they were allowed on the road.