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DOT Unveils Sweeping New Rules on Driverless Cars

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The Department of Transportation will release new standards Tuesday vastly expanding the federal government’s role in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

The new policy, a mixture of immediately effective components and provisions that require public comment, usurps a patchwork of state regulations and may impose a nationwide inspection and approval regime on self-driving systems.

“This full policy is a big step for us,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters during a Monday call with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind and White House economic advisor Jeff Zients.

Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles are already on the roads in several states. Tesla Motors Inc. is selling vehicles with a semi-autonomous “Autopilot” feature across the country, and Uber Technologies Inc. has deployed driverless cars in Pittsburgh, Pa. Google is currently testing autonomous vehicle technology in four states.

Those initiatives could come under scrutiny with the DOT’s new policy.

The new standard proposes a policy that would scrap the DOT’s “self-certification” system for driverless car manufacturers. Manufacturers would instead be required to receive “pre-market approval authority,” in which the government inspects and affirmatively approves new autonomous technologies before they can be deployed.

Foxx did not rule out the possibility that Tesla, Uber and Google would be forced to halt autonomous vehicle operations until they receive a green light from the DOT and the NHTSA.

“Our intention is to cover the waterfront as best we can,” Foxx said. “In some areas, like this one, there’s going to be a need for conversation over the long term.”

Foxx said the federal government has an “intention to occupy the field” in the regulation of driverless cars, explaining that the DOT’s new rules are designed to preempt state laws now governing autonomous vehicle use.

States still maintain authority over vehicles operated by human beings. But Foxx said the federal government will now have the final say on any and all vehicles operated by software.

“Our approach to this falls squarely within our existing authorities,” Foxx said, adding that the DOT is seeking to “avoid a patchwork of state laws.”

States will retain control over enacting and enforcing traffic laws, as well as regulating motor vehicle insurance and liability.

Rosekind said the NHTSA would not tolerate any pushback from states over the new federal policy. “Our enforcement authority stands strong, and it will be used to its fullest effect as needed,” he said.

The new federal policy imposes a 15-point safety assessment on any company test, manufacture, or deployment of autonomous vehicle technology. Companies will be asked to submit answers to these 15 safety questions along with data to back up their assertions.

A fact sheet outlining the rules says a different safety assessment will apply for lower level automated systems, which assist the driver without entirely taking over the driving task.

Foxx said he is confident that all players in the driverless car industry will respond accurately to the safety assessment, adding that the industry has a “vested interest to go through the rigors and engage with us.”

NHTSA also is exploring how industry and the federal government can best collect and share data on autonomous vehicle crashes and incidents. He said his agency intends to “provide a way for all autonomous vehicles to learn from those issues, as opposed to just one company.”

Foxx said the DOT’s new autonomous vehicle policy is “just the first step” and that the DOT will continue to engage with the public and stakeholders on rules.

The DOT will solicit additional public comment on the rules over the next 60 days and expects to update its driverless car regulations annually.

Correction

This article has been updated to remove a reference to NHTSA compelling companies to respond to safety questions.