WASHINGTON -- NHTSA said Tuesday it was proposing sweeping changes to U.S. safety requirements to speed the deployment of self-driving vehicles without human controls.
The agency said it is proposing to rewrite 11 safety standards that require traditional manual control "by revising the requirements and test procedures to account for the removal of manually-operated driving controls."
The proposal will be open for public comment before the agency can finalize it. Companies like General Motors, Alphabet Inc.'s Waymo , Uber Technologies Inc. and Ford Motor Co. are aggressively testing self-driving cars.
"This is great news for roadway safety," the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said in a statement on Tuesday. "There are no other transportation safety or mobility solutions that hold as much promise to provide as many benefits to the traveling public as automated vehicle technologies."
"With this rulemaking proposal, the U.S. Department of Transportation is taking a necessary step toward reducing regulatory barriers for advanced safety technologies while preserving passenger protections."
NHTSA proposes to revise rules for occupant protection, steering controls, glazing materials, door locks, seating systems, side impact protection, roof crush resistance and child restraint anchorage systems. Some are to address vehicles that will be delivery only and have no passengers.
Jason Levine, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, criticized NHTSA for moving ahead during the coronavirus pandemic, adding it should not "remove regulatory safeguards for technology even DOT acknowledges has not been proven and may in fact be unsafe."
GM sought permission from NHTSA in January 2018 for a waiver to deploy up to 2,500 cars on U.S. roads per year without steering wheels and other human controls, but the agency has not yet acted on the proposal.
While automakers across the world are racing to develop self-driving vehicles, the technology has yet to gain widespread consumer acceptance as recent accidents involving such vehicles raised doubts about their readiness for public roads.
NHTSA is not proposing to change rules for cars with human drivers.
NHTSA said in its proposal that "as much of this potential is currently unsubstantiated and the impacts unknown, the agency believes the most prudent path forward is to remove unnecessary barriers to innovation while ensuring that occupants continue to receive the same protections afforded by existing regulations."
Last month, NHTSA allowed SoftBank Group-backed autonomous vehicle startup Nuro Inc. to temporarily deploy up to 5,000 low-speed electric delivery vehicles without human controls like mirrors and steering wheels.
Said the Alliance: "Our nation’s regulatory framework must allow for the safe testing and deployment of automated vehicle technologies, and account for the fact that manual driver controls, such as the steering wheel and brake pedal, may no longer be needed in some automated vehicles."