Obama administration rolls out policy for self-driving vehicles

President Barack Obama said automated vehicles have the potential to save lives

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday released an overview of the federal government's automated vehicles policy, which includes a checklist for makers on various aspects of the cars they are developing, as well as guidelines to states on evolving a common framework for regulating the new technologies.

“Automated vehicles have the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year,” wrote Obama in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Monday. “Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right,” he added.

Obama wrote that the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is if the public loses confidence in the safety of the new technology, and the responsibility of both government and industry is to make sure it doesn’t happen.

“If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road,” Obama wrote. "We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety."

A number of tech companies and traditional car makers are investing in self-driving technologies. Uber has started testing in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a self-driving ride-hailing service, while rival Lyft is working with General Motors on developing a network of autonomous vehicles.

But deaths in accidents involving Tesla Motors' cars in China and Florida have raised some questions about the readiness of autonomous technology. In the Florida instance, it was confirmed that Tesla’s Autopilot technology for driver-assistance was activated, while in the China incident, Tesla says it does not have sufficient data to establish that the technology was engaged. The company has since then upgraded the Autopilot technology.

The vehicle performance guidance component of the new Federal Automated Vehicles Policy of the Department of Transportation addresses best practices for the “safe design, development and testing of automated vehicles prior to commercial sale or operation on public roads,” and covers technologies where the system can do all the driving without continuous attention of a human driver, all classes of motor vehicles and all kinds of companies testing, operating or deploying automated vehicles, according to a fact sheet released by the department.

Under the new policy, makers of HAVs (highly automated vehicles) and other entities will have to follow a 15-point "safety assessment" checklist that requires documentation of operational and safety issues as well as of privacy protections for users, consumer education, measures to protect against hacks and ethical considerations such as how vehicles are programmed to address conflict dilemmas on the road.

"We’re asking them to sign a 15-point safety checklist showing not just the government, but every interested American, how they’re doing it." Obama wrote in his op-ed.

The preview of the policy was given ahead of a press conference on Tuesday at which the government is expected to discuss more details of the policy as well as new powers the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) may require, according to reports.

The Model State Policy component of the guidance, while confirming that states will retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes, pushes for the establishment of a consistent national framework of laws and policy to govern automated vehicles. Setting safety standards for new motor vehicles and their equipment, and ensuring compliance with the standards would, for example, be a federal responsibility.

“We’re also giving guidance to states on how to wisely regulate these new technologies, so that when a self-driving car crosses from Ohio into Pennsylvania, its passengers can be confident that other vehicles will be just as responsibly deployed and just as safe,” Obama wrote.

The new policy also proposes post-sale regulation of software changes and a “pre-market approval authority,” in which the government "inspects and affirmatively approves" new technologies, which would be a departure from the current self-certification system of the NHTSA. Some of the tools could be created under existing law, while others would require approval from Congress, according to DOT.

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John Ribeiro

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