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Federal government debuts first set of guidelines for self-driving cars

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The federal government has rolled out its first ever set of guidelines governing automated vehicles, laying out how they ought to operate on U.S. roads in a report titled “Federal Automated Vehicles Policy: Accelerating the Next Revolution In Roadway Safety.”

A product of the Department of Transportation (DoT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the policy contains a performance guide for manufacturers, an overview of the regulatory powers NHTSA has, a set of “New Tools and Authorities,” and a model for the 50 states.

The performance guidelines include a 15-point safety assessment the DoT hopes manufacturers like Tesla and Uber will follow. They take on a number of factors, ranging from local laws on self-driving software to “ethical considerations” like, perhaps, what a car will swerve towards in a crash. While the NHTSA worked on the report, it’s unclear if or how it was informed by their ongoing investigation into the fatal-crash of a semi-autonomous vehicle. I’ve asked the agency to clarify this, but have yet to hear back.

On a call with press yesterday, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx nodded to the new federal policy on private drones. Effective already as guidelines, Foxx explained at a press conference today that they will become rules in “several months.” He also noted that the policy, and especially the model state portion, was intended to “avoid a patchwork of state laws” on the software-side of self-driving cars.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this dovetails with what a lot of private actors in the tech industry want. As Recode points out, Lyft’s director of government relations, Robert Grant, said something almost identical at a NHTSA testimony in April, opining that “the worst possible scenario for the growth of self-driving vehicles is an inconsistent patchwork of laws.”

The stated emphasis is on safety, something hammered home by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed Barack Obama. In the op-ed, the president strikes a conciliatory tone: “Regulation can go too far. Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That’s why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.” The choice of the Post-Gazette for the op-ed makes sense: Uber, which has been pouring money into self-driving cars, has a heavy research presence in the city and is deploying its first self-driving fleet for customers there.

Interestingly, most consumer-available self-driving cars, like Tesla’s Models S and X with autopilot, remain semi-autonomous. And some experts in the field, like Carnegie Mellon’s Herman Herman say we’re “not even close” to real self-driving cars; There are still “fundamental problems that need to be solved.”