Editorial: Feds help push self-driving cars

The Detroit News

At this year’s North American International Auto Show it’s clear self-driving vehicles are coming, perhaps soon. Automakers and tech companies are racing to the start of autonomous driving.

Now the federal government will try to hasten their arrival with $4 billion in support over 10 years, and by creating a regulatory framework for the technology.

There’s already been significant investment from the private sector in developing the vehicles, but more remains to be done, and federal support will be beneficial.

And to the extent future regulations could hamper the adoption of autonomous driving, it’s good the government is getting ahead of the technology and working with companies to develop the legal framework. That will give developers a clear path forward, and help guide investments from Detroit’s Big Three in the technology.

Companies such as Apple and Alphabet’s Google, which are helping push autonomous driving, have also asked for clarity on what will be regulated.

President Barack Obama, who will visit the Detroit auto show this week, hinted at the government initiatives in his recent State of the Union address, noting the need for a “21st century transportation infrastructure.” The investment is part of his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal.

And U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx spoke to industry attendees Thursday at the Detroit show, touting the government plans for involvement.

“Automated vehicles open up possibilities for saving lives, saving time and saving fuel,” Foxx said.

He also said the agency wants to partner with automakers to make progress, not hold it back. That’s a critical piece of any new regulations.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working to develop a model policy for autonomous vehicles that can be a guide for safety and other elements in all 50 states, rather than work after the fact to fix a patchwork of differing state policies.

Currently, only a handful of states, including Michigan, allows self-driving vehicles on test tracks. California recently proposed legislation that would require a human driver in any autonomous vehicle, and essentially ban commercial use of the cars until further notice.

The NHTSA will also work on developing regulations for safety and operations of the vehicles over the next six months.

Foxx asked manufacturers to submit rule interpretation requests to help enable technology innovation, and signaled his agency would be flexible in fully deploying autonomous vehicles. The agency could allow the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for up to two years if it will help develop safety features.

As technology around autonomous driving continues to evolve quickly, it’s imperative these rules are issued. Further, they’ll allow fully driverless cars nationally, if the safety and other features are right.

It’s a promising venture for the federal government, and an exciting time for Detroit’s auto industry, Silicon Valley and the Department of Transportation to work together.