An Uber self-driving car on test in the US

An Uber self-driving car on test in the US

The US Department of Transportation has announced federal policy for automated vehicles which, it said, lays "a path for the safe testing and deployment of new auto technologies that have enormous potential for improving safety and mobility for Americans on the road".

"Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken," said US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx in a statement. "This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely."

The policy sets a proactive approach to providing safety assurance and facilitating innovation through four key parts. Vehicle performance guidance uses a 15-point safety assessment to set clear expectations for manufacturers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies. Model state policy delineates the federal and state roles for the regulation of highly automated vehicle technologies as part of an effort to build a consistent national framework of laws to govern self-driving vehicles. Finally, the policy outlines options for the further use of current federal authorities to expedite the safe introduction of highly automated vehicles into the marketplace, as well as discusses new tools and authorities the federal government may need as the technology evolves and is deployed more widely.

"Ninety-four percent of crashes on US roadways are caused by a human choice or error," said NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind. "We are moving forward on the safe deployment of automated technologies because of the enormous promise they hold to address the overwhelming majority of crashes and save lives."

The Federal Automated Vehicle Policy released last night is a product of significant public input and stakeholder discussions, including two open public meetings this year and an open public docket for comments. The department is also soliciting additional public comments for the next 60 days on the policy. Through a series of next steps and in response to public comments, DOT intends to update the policy annually.

"Public input has been essential to getting this right. There has been a strong call from state and local governments, industry, safety experts, mobility advocates, and average Americans to establish a clear policy for the deployment of automated vehicles on our roads," said Foxx. "There are huge upsides and significant challenges that come with automated vehicle technology, and we will continue the conversation with the public over the coming months and years as this technology develops."

Moving beyond the traditional US auto regulation approach of reactive, post-sale enforcement of safety standards, the policy is a proactive measure. A March 2016 study by DOT's Volpe notes that current federal motor vehicle safety standards do not directly address automated vehicle technologies. Those standards can take many years to develop and are traditionally only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration. Instead, the automated vehicle policy envisions greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front-end of development.

"New technologies developed in the 20th century, like seat belts and air bags, were once controversial but have now saved hundreds of thousands of American lives," Foxx said. "This is the first in a series of proactive approaches, including the release of a rule on vehicle to vehicle communications, which will bring lifesaving technologies to the roads safely and quickly while leaving innovators to dream up new safety solutions."

15 Point Safety Assessment –The Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles for manufacturers, developers and other organizations includes a 15 point "Safety Assessment" for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.

Model State Policy – This section presents a clear distinction between Federal and State responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles, and suggests recommended policy areas for states to consider with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles.

NHTSA's Current Regulatory Tools – This discussion outlines NHTSA's current regulatory tools that can be used to ensure the safe development of new technologies, such as interpreting current rules to allow for greater flexibility in design and providing limited exemptions to allow for testing of nontraditional vehicle designs in a more timely fashion.

Modern Regulatory Tools – This discussion identifies new regulatory tools and statutory authorities that policymakers may consider in the future to aid the safe and efficient deployment of new lifesaving technologies.

The primary focus of the policy is on highly automated vehicles, or those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving task in at least some circumstances. Portions of the policy also apply to lower levels of automation, including some of the driver-assistance systems already being deployed by automakers today.

Simultaneously with this policy, NHTSA is releasing a final enforcement guidance bulletin clarifying how its recall authority will apply to automated vehicle technologies. In particular, it emphasises that semi-autonomous driving systems that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall.

Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, said: "The [council] applauds the release of the Federal Automated Vehicle Policy from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. With an estimated 19,000 fatalities in the first six months of this year, more must be done. Today, the driving public is the winner.

"This policy gives carmakers and states the green light to innovate while keeping safety at the forefront.  Until cars are truly autonomous with 100% reliability, we are still our cars' best safety feature.

"Today, NHTSA has provided a much-needed path forward; we hope innovative manufacturers will embrace the administration's guidelines as a blueprint for saving lives and preventing injuries."

The full document can be downloaded and read from the DoT website

US wants to approve autonomous cars before launch, same rules all states