U.S. seeks to clear autonomous-car hurdles
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DETROIT -- U.S. highway safety officials plan to take several steps this year to clear the way for autonomous vehicles -- including those designed to operate without a driver -- to hit the streets in large numbers.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced the moves at the Detroit auto show today, part of an effort to remove the obstacles posed by current auto safety regulations, many of which were written more than 50 years ago.
Foxx also announced that President Obama has proposed spending nearly $4 billion on autonomous vehicle pilot projects as part of the president's broader effort to upgrade the country's transportation infrastructure.
"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," Foxx said in a statement. "Today's actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential."
The steps reflect the department's optimism that autonomous cars could dramatically reduce vehicle crash deaths, which topped more than 34,000 last year.
For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's current standards would likely prohibit autonomous vehicles designed to operate without a driver, the DOT official briefed on the plan said. The rules govern how components of the car must work, like steering wheels and brake pedals, which aren't used in the prototype cars being developed by Alphabet Inc.'s Google.
Foxx encouraged manufacturers to seek agency interpretations of existing rules to see if new autonomous technologies would adhere to existing rules. Such a request allowed led to NHTSA approving an automated self-parking system from BMW, Foxx said today.
When such interpretations aren't enough, Foxx said the department is willing to grant exemptions from these standards to allow for fully autonomous vehicles, even those designed to operate without a human driver, if they offer greater safety than a human-driven car.
Automakers or others that meet that burden of proof could deploy up to 2,500 autonomous cars per approved request, the DOT said.
To get to that point, the DOT plans to initiate a series of actions and discussions over the next several months.
First, NHTSA updated its preliminary policy statement on autonomous cars from 2013 to reflect its view that large deployments of fully autonomous cars are now technically feasible. It released the update today.
NHTSA will work with states and the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators -- a group representing state motor-vehicle agencies -- to craft a path to a consistent autonomous-car policy framework to avoid a patchwork of state regulations.
Within six months, NHTSA will develop, with auto industry input, policy guidance outlining what constitutes the safe operation and deployment of autonomous vehicles, including how "safe" operation will be tested and measured.
Also over the next six months, NHTSA will investigate whether it needs new authorities -- either through legislation or new rules -- to allow for large numbers of autonomous vehicles in the future, provided that the vehicles are shown to offer "superior levels of safety" to human-driven cars, the DOT official said.
In the meantime, NHTSA will use existing authority to ensure that autonomous cars -- when proven safe -- aren't held back, the official said.
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