Washington — The Trump administration unveiled the federal government's third set of guidelines for self-driving cars in three years on Thursday, doubling down on a voluntary approach to autonomous vehicle regulation that has drawn the ire of safety advocates. 

The guidelines, released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, promise to adapt the definitions of "driver" and "operator'" in federal motor vehicle rules that currently require cars to have a human behind the wheel "to recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may in fact include an automated system." In doing so, the agency says it is opening the door to cars without traditional features like steering wheels, control pedals or mirrors.

Additionally, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will consider changes which would open the door to self-driving passenger buses.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Thursday the new self-driving guidance "builds upon, but does not replace" a 2017 proposal that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report information about their self-driving testing.

Safety advocates have argued that carmarkers will not submit detailed information about their self-driving testing unless they are required to. But Chao defended the voluntary approach, saying "voluntary compliance and self-reporting actually help to improve safety, and we know this because this is the method that’s used in the aviation sector." 

Chao said the latest round of self-driving guidelines demonstrate the Trump administration's commitment to allowing automakers to experiment with self-driving technologies as they seek to craft autonomous cars that can be mass-marketed. 

"It will not be top-down command and control," she said. "This department is not in the business of picking winners and losers, because the government is not the best place to choose which technology will succeed and which technologies will fail." 

The latest self-driving guidelines are the third set of proposed rules for self-driving cars that the federal government has released since 2016. 

In 2017, the Trump administration updated self-driving guidelines that called for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on their handling of 12 safety elements that federal regulators say should be involved in all self-driving car testing. The recommendations were originally crafted by the Obama administration.

The voluntary reporting system has come under fire from safety advocates, who say reports that have been submitted so far — by General Motors Co., Ford Motor Co., the Google-affiliated Waymo and Nuro, a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif. — resemble slick marketing brochures instead of stringent regulatory filings. 

Critics say the self-driving assessments should be mandatory to ensure compliance from all automakers. They also say the paperwork already voluntarily submitted does little to reassure the driving public that vigorous testing is being done, an answer to polls showing increasing unease about self-driving cars. 

The Trump administration says the federal government does not have a mechanism to force automakers to submit safety assessments before they put self-driving cars on the road. They argue that automakers should feel compelled by public opinion polls showing drivers are hesitant to embrace self-driving cars to reassure the public about their products. 

Chao said she has "consistently challenged the high-tech companies to step up and address the public's legitimate concerns about the safety, security and privacy of this new technology.  

"Without public acceptance, the full potential of these technologies will never be realized," Chao said. "Consumer acceptance will be the constraint to growth of this technology."

Congress is working to pass a law that would place new regulations on self-driving cars. The Senate is considering a bill championed by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, that would allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year. A similar measure that would allow carmakers to sell up to 100,000 self-driving cars each per year has already passed in the U.S. House. 

Under the Senate's proposed measure, automakers would be required to submit a safety evaluation of their self-driving cars within 90 days of the proposed measure’s enactment. The House bill directs the transportation department to develop a mandate that requires carmakers to submit safety assessments within two years of its passage into law. The House measure says the voluntary safety assessments that NHTSA is soliciting from carmakers will be acceptable until then.

Safety advocates have argued that carmarkers will not submit detailed information about their self-driving testing unless they are required to. 

"Despite cybersecurity vulnerabilities continuing to dominate headlines, and rising public concern surrounding driverless cars," Jason Levine, executive director for Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement, "NHTSA is still failing to require the submission of any information about the most basic level of safety prior to this technology being deployed on our streets and in our neighborhoods." 

Mitch Bainwol, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for most major automakers, defended the new regulations. He said they build on previous guidance released last September "which has provided greater clarity to auto manufacturers and technology providers working to develop cutting-edge technologies that can enhance roadway safety, expand mobility, and ensure that the U.S. continues to lead the development, testing, and deployment of life saving technologies."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing

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