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The DoT Gets Behind Self-Driving Cars With Funding and Regulation

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 14, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

If you've seen video of self-driving cars cruising through the streets of Manhattan or San Francisco and it slightly terrified you, you weren't alone. Self-driving cars still struggle with things like rain. Can they really handle Bay Area bikers or New York pedestrians?

But whether you fear or love self-driving cars, they're probably here to stay. And now if they stay, they'll be both supported and regulated by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced today that the government will be investing nearly $4 billion in test projects and creation new regulations for autonomous cars that could be in place within six months.

Our Automated Auto Future

The new policy was announced today at the Detroit Auto Show by Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox. "The rapid development of emerging automation technologies means that partially and fully automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible," Fox stated.

But, testing must ensure that such deployment is safe beforehand. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "will use all available tools to determine the safety potential of new technologies" and establish "rigorous testing regime that provides sufficient data to determine safety performance and help policymakers at all levels make informed decisions about deployment," according to the DOT and NHTSA's brief policy statement.

The announcement is a marked shift from previous policy. In 2013, the DOT recommended that fully autonomous cars should be limited to testing and kept out of the hands of the general public. Today's announcement takes a very different tone:

DOT and NHTSA will develop the new tools necessary for this new era of vehicle safety and mobility, and will seek new authorities when they are necessary to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.

Testing, Regulations, and Potential Uniformity

The $4 billion dedicated to self-driving cars will cover "a decade's worth" of pilot and testing programs, according to The Verge. Part of Obama's 2017 budget proposal, the full details will be released in February.

In the meantime, NHTSA will start working in earnest on developing regulations for autonomous cars, releasing the first regulations within six months. (Though we wouldn't bet too much money that the government will meet that deadline.) That will include "best-practice guidance" for the industry, as well as model policies for states to adopt.

Federal intervention is likely to be looked on positively by the self-driving car industry. Manufacturers currently worry that states, if left on their own, will develop numerous and contradictory autonomous car rules.

California, for example, released draft regulations last week, which required a steering wheel so that a human can take over should something go wrong. That sent Google into a tizzy, as its self-driving cars are meant to be truly driverless. They come without steering wheels or even a brake pedal.

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