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The U.S. Secretary of Transportation has directed his department to re-evaluate its guidance on self-driving cars, indicating he sees the potential for autonomous vehicles to ultimately transition into broader use as technology and safety advances permit.

Secretary Anthony Foxx has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to update its 2013 policy “as soon as possible,” noting he anticipates seeing recommendations in a matter of “weeks, not months.”

Foxx indicated Tuesday he was reacting in part to the perception that his agency has been “a little gingerly” in its embrace of autonomous vehicles.

“I want the posture of our agency to be obviously vigilant on the safety front, but I don’t want our agency to be skittish about the innovations that are out there,” Foxx told reporters in Washington.

“I want to make it clear that we’ll apply the same rigor to autonomous vehicles that we would to any type of vehicle. We’re not going to shrink from any of the innovations that may be out there that can be safety-enhancing, and enhance the quality of life for Americans.”

Two years ago, in May 2013, Foxx’s department struck a cautious tone in its official policy statement, which said autonomous cars should be limited to testing and not “authorized for use by members of the public for general driving purposes.”

A spokeswoman, Suzanne Emmerling, said the technology is much more mature than even two years ago, following “breathtaking progress.”

Foxx said he sees the industry on the cusp of a “massive transformation” in transportation in which the machine takes on more operating tasks.

“That’s exciting on some levels, but it also something that requires a lot of thought on the part of our agency in terms of how to create the safest possible environment for that technology, and what some of the ground rules for that ought to be,” he said.

“What you’re sensing from me is a belief that, if done well, we will set the ground rules for the next 20 or 30 years on transportation by figuring out, as early as we can, how to best integrate this technology into our roadways.”

The specific language that the traffic safety administration is revisiting specifies that states which do permit public access after testing should require that a qualified driver be behind the wheel.

For several years, Google and several traditional automakers have been running prototypes equipped with a suite of sensors and cameras around public streets and highways, mostly in California.

Those cars must have someone behind the wheel, ready to take over. Some have gotten into collisions, though companies say in each case a person in another car caused the accident.

Google has advocated spreading self-driving cars into the public, once the tech titan concludes the technology is safe.

While states have taken the lead on regulating self-driving cars, policymakers in Washington hold some sway over states’ decision-making.

In Congress, U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, introduced legislation earlier this year to promote investments in vehicle-to-infrastructure communication technology that the bill says will “improve vehicle safety, reduce accidents and avoid congestion."

The technology involves cars repeatedly sending wireless signals to each other, and could help alert motorists if an oncoming vehicle is about to disregard a stop sign.

The Peters-Blunt bill accompanies a House version spearheaded by Reps. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has asked for federal guidance as it struggles with how to move the cars safely from small-scale road tests to broader adoption.

The nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog has urged caution.

“We commend the DMV for its thoughtful and thorough approach, and urge that you continue to act in the public’s interest, rather than succumbing to corporate pressure,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog wrote last week in a letter to California’s department of motor vehicles. “The important thing is getting the regulations right, not rushing them out the door.”

mburke@detroitnews.com

(202) 662-8736

The Associated Press contributed.

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