Feds want $4 billion for driverless vehicles

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

To smooth the road to self-driving cars, the federal government wants to waive some safety rules and fast-track the adoption of new automated technologies.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday announced a 10-year, $3.9 billion investment that’s part of President Barack Obama’s 2017 budget proposal to accelerate development of autonomous cars. The new policies would lay a framework for state regulatory laws and generally remove roadblocks and red tape that have stalled development in the past.

“We are bullish on automated vehicles,” Foxx told reporters Thursday on the show floor of the 2016 North American International Auto Show. “We’re entering a new world here and we know it. We have to have one foot grounded in what we know about safety and apply our thinking to manage this transition. But we also have to have a healthy dose of learning from the industry — what they know — taking into account the possibility the ways we thought about safety have to change.”

Foxx was joined by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind, representatives from Google Inc., Tesla, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and other automakers, and suppliers. Executives, industry analysts and lawmakers on Thursday applauded the move because it’s been widely agreed that regulation and safety standards are one of the major setbacks to developing driverless cars and trucks.

“Technologically, autonomous vehicles are possible. However, regulations — or, in some cases, lack thereof — are a hurdle,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Autotrader.com. “The Department of Transportation’s recognition of that fact is a good first step.”

While no details about how the money will be spent were available, Foxx said the new guidelines will be implemented through a series of pilot programs.

An example, Foxx said, is that BMW’s self-parking technology did not comply with federal safety regulations, but recently the government revised those laws so the automaker could move forward with testing and bringing it to market. Another example is a law that requires Google’s autonomous cars to have a steering wheel and pedals before they’re allowed on roads, even though they don’t need those features.

Foxx, in a panel discussion about the future of mobility last week at the CES technology trade show in Las Vegas, said it’s his department’s job to ensure that products in the marketplace are safe.

An increased federal focus on driverless cars could result in more pressure on automakers to speed research and development or do more testing to ensure safety.

Mark Reuss, GM’s head of global product development, said he’s fine with that.

“If there’s more testing to be done, it’s not because it’s fun to do more testing, it’s because there’s a good reason behind it,” he told reporters Thursday after the news conference. “This is an unknown world. To have a partner and a regulator and other industry partners is going to be the fastest, safest way to do it.

“Those things cost money, but if it saves one life as we develop this technology for autonomous vehicles, does it really matter?”

Foxx said development of autonomous cars is needed because of expected population growth and extra stress on roadways.

“We’re on course for a future in which congestion will only get worse than it already is,” he said. “Our nation needs an approach that rises to the challenges before us.”

As part of the announcement, NHTSA said it will work to develop uniform state regulations.

Within the next six months, NHTSA will work with states to develop a “model state policy on automated vehicles that offers a path to consistent national policy.” It also will work with industry and other stakeholders to develop guidance on the safe deployment and operation of driverless vehicles.

NHTSA will exempt up to 2,500 vehicles from some auto safety standards for up to two years, if it determines that would ease development of new safety features.

Foxx said the government wants to partner with automakers to “make progress, not hold progress back.”

Foxx last week told The Detroit News that regulations for autonomous driving will, for the foreseeable future, be left to the states.

“There’s a lot the federal government can do in terms of laying out safety standards and producing guidance for model legislations at the state level,” Foxx said at CES. “It may happen at some point that there’s a desire for a national approach for these things, but I think we’re a little ways away from that point.”

Reuss said that regulations need to be a combination of the two.

“It’s got to be national and state,” he said. “The road systems are different in every single town in the United States. That’s part of the challenge.”

Google Inc. Self-Driving Car Project CEO John Krafcik said the model legislation was a “really exciting” part of Foxx’s announcement.

“A good road has a clear path and guard rails,” he said. “I think that’s what we heard from the secretary today was a plan to help guide autonomous vehicles down a clear road with clear guard rails to help us all.”

Foxx will be in Detroit again Friday to make an announcement related to vehicle safety, and a number of automaker representatives are supposed to be present.

Detroit News Staff Writer Michael Wayland contributed.