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Feds Try to Hit the Gas on Self-Driving Cars

January 14, 2016, 10:31 PM UTC
Transportation Sec'y Foxx Discusses Future Transportation Trends With Google CEO
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - FEBRUARY 02: Google's Chris Urmson (R) shows a Google self-driving car to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx (L) and Google Chairman Eric Schmidt (C) at the Google headquarters on February 2, 2015 in Mountain View, California. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx joined Google Chairman Eric Schmidt for a fireside chat where he unveiled Beyond Traffic, a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation that anticipates the trends and choices facing our transportation system over the next three decades. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Photograph by Justin Sullivan — Getty Images

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx gave his agency six months to create guidelines for how automated vehicle technology should be tested and regulated, a move that aims to end the mishmash of state rules that may slow down the development of self-driving cars.

“We are bullish on automated vehicles,” Foxx said during a press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Foxx also unveiled an update to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s policies for autonomous vehicles that it last touched in 2013. The new guidance adds some flexibility for automakers and reflects the reality that the widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is now feasible, according to the DOT.

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The announcement was well-received by Google (GOOG) and automakers, many of which had executives on stage with Foxx. Companies are in a race to develop self-driving technology that will turn drivers into passengers.

Audi, Delphi, Daimler’s Mercedes-Benz, General Motors (GM), Ford, and Tesla (TSLA) all are developing autonomous driving features. NHTSA defines vehicle automation as having five levels. At level zero, the driver is completely in control and by level four, the vehicle takes over all safety-critical functions and monitors roadway conditions for an entire trip.

Google, which has criticized recent draft rules by the California DMV that requires fully autonomous driverless cars to have steering wheels and brake pedals, said it was encouraged by the federal agency’s approach.

“Fully autonomous vehicles have the potential save lives, so we welcome the secretary’s commitment to removing barriers that may prevent them from sharing the roads when they’re ready,” Google spokesman Johnny Luu said in a statement.

The federal government sees the opportunity to reduce vehicle fatalities through the widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles. However, inconsistent rules at the state level threaten to delay the introduction of autonomous driving technology in cars and trucks.

“A fundamental regulatory framework on a total country basis has to be developed; this is a start to that,” General Motors’ executive vice president of global product development Mark Reuss told Fortune in an interview after the press conference. Reuss doesn’t see this playing out in a traditional manner with federal regulators dictating to the industry the rules for autonomous vehicles.

“Because it’s so unknown, much of this will be developed across the industry with the regulators, which is a very different model and can be very powerful,” Reuss says. “And that’s why we look forward to it.”

The clarity that this national guideline will provide should help GM accelerate its autonomous vehicle plans, Reuss says. Earlier this month, GM invested $500 million into ride-hailing startup Lyft. The long-term vision is to eventually deploy GM self-driving cars within Lyft’s service.

For more on, GM’s efforts in self-driving cars

Foxx also announced that President Obama’s 2017 budget proposal will include $4 billion over 10 years for pilot projects that would include setting up designated corridors to test connected vehicle systems. The agency didn’t provide any more detail about these corridors, including their location or when they might be created.

Self-driving cars use radar, ultrasonics, GPS navigation and cameras to navigate roads safely. But to create a truly safe network, these autonomous vehicles must be able to communicate with each other. Automakers need to use a common protocol or system for vehicle-to-vehicle communication to work properly

“If a Cadillac is going to be able to talk to a Ford or Volvo, we have to agree upon the system,” Reuss says. “There can’t be some kind of advantage where one car connects better than another car.”

In many ways, this is uncharted territory for automakers, states, and the federal government. However, the federal government has worked with highly competitive industries in the past to develop a common system. For instance, the defense industry uses a common protocol in its products and services, Reuss notes.

He doesn’t believe this will be a completely public and transparent process where automakers openly share information and collaborate. Instead, he sees automakers bringing developed vehicles to neutral site to develop the protocol and regulatory piece on vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

“I look for the regulator to set the cultural tone to be able to achieve that, Reuss says, adding that he believes that Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind have created a culture to achieve this.