DOT chief: Next president to formalize self-drive rules

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Wednesday that his agency’s proposed set of guidelines that automakers have to meet before they can place self-driving cars on public roads will likely be formalized during the next president’s administration.

Foxx told reporters in Washington that he is confident that the proposed guidelines, which are currently subject to a 60-day comment period, will be embraced by the next president’s administration as President Barack Obama’s final term in office — and his own — are rapidly winding down.

“We feel like the framework is going to be solid and in fact we’ve built into the guidance annual reviews of it to account for the fact that this is still a very dynamic and evolving area, and we need to be nimble as we try to evolve with it,” he said. “I think we’ve laid a foundation for a conversation and I’m pleased to see the conversation getting more specific.”

The proposed set of 15 guidelines call for automakers and technology companies who are working to develop autonomous cars to voluntary report on their testing and safety to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before the cars are used by the public.

The rules are meant to steer the development of the technology as states like Michigan and California create their own rules for allowing self-driving cars to hit the road.

Critics have complained that the rules are not specific enough and do not contain appropriate enforcement mechanisms for compelling automakers to comply.

Foxx said Wednesday that the transportation department plans to move forward with making the voluntary guidelines into a federal mandate, but he said the task will likely be left to his successor since time is winding down for his tenure in office.

“We want to get through the comments that have come through and that will come through over the first 60 days,” he said. “NHTSA is going to be doing regional conversations about this as also part of the stakeholder input. We want to do a wide sweep of the stakeholder input, and so I suspect that will have to happen in the first part of the next administration.”

The proposed regulations call for states to allow federal regulators to create rules for self-driving autos, while state and local governments continue to regulate the drivers that are behind the wheel.

The rules would be a sharp departure from NHTSA’s typical posture of largely waiting for automakers to self-report problems before recalls are issued. Before self-driving cars are allowed to roll on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if they fail.

Foxx said Wednesday that the federal government’s role in regulating self-driving cars is evolving as much as the technology is.

“Because we’re not talking about what you might call a mature technology, it means we have to strike a different balance between being prescriptive, which is how most of our regulations are set up,” he said.

Foxx added that it is important for federal regulators to give automakers and technology companies space to experiment with self-driving technologies as they are racing to develop fully autonomous vehicles.

The nation’s transportation chief said the federal government’s involvement in the development of self-driving cars will be different from other areas of regulation.

“What you’re used to seeing us do, is you’re used to seeing us intake a bunch of information within mature transportation technologies and developing rules that say ‘You have to have a brake pad, you have to have steering wheel, you have to have this or that,’” Foxx said. “We’re in a totally different space. You can’t compare this to anything else we’ve done.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing