Last time, we looked at moves by the authorities in California to regulate partially autonomous cars. But what’s happening in the US at the federal level?

Ten-year plans

In January, during the Detroit Auto Show, the US government announced plans for a national policy on autonomous cars. It promised to invest almost $4bn over the next 10 years ‘to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects’. 

The funding – part of President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal – is to help test connected and autonomous cars ‘in designated corridors’ throughout the US. 

Industry input

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to develop a model state policy on automated driving by the middle of July 2016. 

The federal government intends to use this state-level framework to create a national policy. Such a move would benefit manufacturers, who would otherwise have to navigate up to 50 conflicting regimes.

Interestingly, rather than dictate ‘top-down’ federal regulation, the DOT is promoting more of a ‘bottom-up’ approach. 

For example, it’s encouraging auto-manufacturers to submit rule interpretation requests to see if their autonomous driving features, such as self-parking systems, meet its standards. Manufacturers can also ask for exemptions for features they consider safe. 

In a recent letter to Mr.Urmson, Director, self driving cars at Google, the NHTSA responded to the request to interpret the provisions in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs) in relation to autonomous vehicles. The NHTSA’s response is a detailed interoperations of issues from definition of the driver to design elements such as rear visibility. To read the full letter – click here.

The NHTSA is open to the discussion on self-driving vehicles (SDV) and said: “We agree with Google its SDV will not have a driver in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years.”

Full federal autonomy?

For now, the states that have their own rules around self-driving vehicles, such as California, still require a human driver behind the wheel who can take control if necessary. 

However, unlike the Golden State, the DOT and NHTSA are also looking at rules for cars that were ‘designed without a human driver in mind’. 

And in contrast to when California published its draft regulations, Google was noticeably more positive about the DOT’s announcement. ‘Fully autonomous vehicles have the potential to save lives, so we welcome the Secretary’s commitment to removing barriers that may prevent them from sharing the roads when they’re ready,’ Wired reported a Google spokesperson as saying.

The US welcomes careful drivers

There is no doubt that, as the US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said, ‘we are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people’. 

Ten years is a long time considering the pace of technological developments in the area of automated and autonomous driving. So the federal government seems to be being cautious – perhaps with some justification.

After all, manufacturers still face plenty of technological challenges, so the regulators aren’t expecting to have to approve a problem-free autonomous vehicle any time soon. 

And while the federal government wants state rules by the summer, the legislators will have plenty more drafting work to do before self-driving cars take to public streets.