US endorses self-driving cars, with a catch: Feds want to control tech approval, not states

Lexus SUV Google prototype autonomous vehicle in Mountain View, 2015. REUTERS

Federal auto safety regulators today said that self-driving cars “will save time, money and lives,” but also sent a clear signal that they want the power to inspect and approve technology before it hits the highways, rather than each U.S. state setting its own safety standards.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said on a press call today that a new federal premarket approval system "would require a lot more upfront discussion, dialogue and staffing on our part."

The government's statement today is big news for Uber, Google, Apple, and other Silicon Valley firms pouring millions of R&D dollars into figuring out how to swap human drivers for smart machines, or at least allow us to share control in “semiautonomous” setups.

A prototype of Google's own self-driving vehicle is seen during a media preview of Google's current autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, California September 29, 2015.  REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

A prototype of Google's own self-driving vehicle is seen during a media preview of Google's current autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, California September 29, 2015. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

The Obama administration promises “strong safety oversight, but sent a clear signal to automakers that the door was wide open for driverless cars,” reports the New York Times:

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”

The statements were the most aggressive signal yet by federal regulators that they see automated car technology as a win for auto safety. Yet having officially endorsed the fast-evolving technology, regulators must now balance the commercial interests of companies including Tesla, Google and Uber with concerns over public safety, especially in light of recent crashes involving semiautonomous cars.

The policies unveiled on Monday were designed to walk that line. In a joint appearance, Mr. Zients and Anthony Foxx, secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, released the first guidelines, which outlined safety standards and encouraged uniform rules for the nascent technology. The instructions signaled to motorists that automated vehicles would not be a wild west where companies can try anything without oversight, but were also vague enough that automakers and technology companies would not fear over-regulation.

And from Reuters, on why the federal vs. state question matters so much to Google:

On another issue, the administration's guidance sides with Alphabet Inc's Google unit by calling for the federal government, not states, to set the rules governing vehicles driven by computers.

Google criticized California last year when the state proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars.

A person briefed on the guidelines prior to their release on Tuesday said they urge states not to require the presence of a licensed driver in the driver seat when a highly automated vehicle is in operation. The person requested anonymity because the guidelines had not yet been made public.

"When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply," Foxx told reporters on a conference call on Monday. The goal is to "avoid a patchwork of state laws," he added.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles said in a statement on Monday that it would not comment until it saw the guidelines, but said it planned to release revised draft regulations in the coming weeks.