A US lobby group claims new federal guidelines announced last night for autonomous vehicles will affect safety.

"The new federal autonomous vehicle policy poses a threat to highway safety, Consumer Watchdog claimed as the nonpartisan nonprofit group called for the enactment of enforceable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards specifically covering self driving cars.

Dubbed a Vision for Safety 2.0 and released by secretary of transportation Elaine Chao, the new policy emphasises the voluntary nature of the new federal guidelines.

"This isn't a vision for safety," said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's privacy project director.

"It's a roadmap that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety."

The new Department of Transportation and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration policy focuses only on voluntary guidance for Level 3, Level 4 and Level 5 self-driving cars, not Level 2 technology where only some driving technology is automated, Consumer Watchdog said.  

"This a serious short-coming and ignores the fact that Level 2 technology, like Tesla's Autopilot, has killed people," said Simpson.

"How the human driver monitors and interacts with Level 2 technologies is potentially life threatening and requires Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."

The DOT claimed the revised voluntary policy "incorporates feedback received through public comments."

"This simply isn't true," Simpson said. "There hasn't been a NHTSA public hearing on autonomous vehicle policy since President Trump was inaugurated and the highly touted DOT Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation (ACAT) has not even met and has been completely ignored by Trump's appointees."

The new robot car guidelines raise questions for state regulators, Consumer Watchdog said.  For example, proposed self-driving rules in California mandate that manufacturers would have to file a federal safety assessment with NHTSA. The new guidance, however, says states should not codify any portion of the voluntary guidance in their regulations.

"The DOT and NHTSA 'Vision for Safety 2.0 tells auto manufacturers to think about a few things involving robot cars and then do whatever they want," said Simpson.

Some analysts do not agree.

Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader & Kelley Blue Book, said: "There are three major components of making self driving cars a reality: technology, hardware and regulations. The technology and hardware are rapidly evolving at various companies, but neither will matter if the regulatory element takes forever to get resolved.

"This new set of guidelines from NHSTA is clearly designed to encourage more innovation, more testing and, ultimately, the safe deployment of self-driving cars.

"Clear guidelines that encourage innovation is what the industry needs as it moves toward the ultimate goal of safer, more efficient personal transportation."

KBB analyst Rebecca Lindland added: "This is what autonomous vehicle developers have been asking for. The DOT is clearly focused on safety but at the same time, NHSTA's guidelines should provide the flexibility developers want. Importantly, this set of regulations should help prevent a patchwork of state and federal standards, the type of competing regulations that can quickly strangle innovation."