The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration sees itself becoming far more involved in evaluating autonomous cars before they hit the road, a departure from today's system of self-certification and backward-looking corrective actions.
It would start small, with companies on the hook for completing a 15-point "safety assessment" of their autonomous cars, describing the behavior and capabilities of various component systems, before they go on the market. There are no strict standards here, and the process is voluntary, but federal officials fully expect all companies to step up.
"It's in their vested interest to go through the rigors that we're laying out here and to engage with us as early as possible in the development of the technology," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "It's also in their vested interest to be as upfront and as clear and transparent as possible because there's market risk to putting a product out there that doesn't meet the expectations of the public."
This approach gives companies developing self-driving cars latitude to test and deploy different technologies, but it also provides regulators a way to monitor the safety of the technology and learn about it as it develops, according to a senior Department of Transportation official.
"You set standards when you know the best way of doing something, and in this case, I think the best way of doing something is not immediately clear," the official said. "What this does is it really sketches out the landscape of what designers should be considering."
As NHTSA's understanding grows, this official said, the assessment process could evolve into firm performance standards or more prescriptive guidance.
And the government's policy outline doesn't hold back about where this could lead: a form of auto regulation that's more akin to the Food and Drug Administration's, where NHTSA would have the "pre-market approval" authority to test and, if warranted, block certain autonomous cars from being sold.
Such a change would require an act of Congress, not to mention a "wholesale structural change in the way NHTSA regulates motor vehicle safety" and "a large increase in Agency resources," the DOT said in its guidance.
A more measured approach considered by the DOT would apply the pre-market approval authority only to features that aren't covered by existing safety rules.