The Trump administration promised not to let excessive regulation get in the way of the development of self-driving cars, warning state governments on Tuesday not to adopt inconsistent rules that could hamper progress in this field.
Announcing new safety guidelines for autonomous vehicles to replace those the Obama administration issued last year, transportation secretary Elaine Chao emphasised the need for a light touch in regulating the industry, to give the US a jump on global competitors in developing the technologies that will revolutionise transport in coming decades.
“This is a guidance document; it is not a regulatory document,” she said. “This technology is so new and it is evolving so quickly that we wanted to give guidance to people involved in the sector” while protecting “the creativity and innovation that is a hallmark of America”.
Some consumer groups expressed dismay. “This isn’t a vision for safety,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director. “It’s a road map that allows manufacturers to do whatever they want, wherever and whenever they want, turning our roads into private laboratories for robot cars with no regard for our safety.”
The new guidelines are consistent with the regulatory approach US automakers have been calling for and “streamline, refine and clarify” the federal automated vehicle policy released last year.
The new document, “A Vision for Safety”, is a fraction of the length of the previous policy, and Ms Chao discouraged states from codifying the new guidelines, including those involving safety self-assessments of self-driving cars that are voluntary under the guidelines.
Companies will not need to wait for approval from federal regulators before testing or deploying self-driving cars, Ms Chao said. Department officials clarified afterward that such approval had not been required under the Obama-era rules either.
Ms Chao said she was concerned that inconsistent state regulations could stymie development. “The department is sending a clear message discouraging a messy patchwork of state laws,” DOT officials said after she spoke.
Carmakers and analysts welcomed the new guidelines. “The revised policy provides clear, streamlined, and flexible guidance for the safe and responsible design, manufacture, and deployment of self-driving vehicles,” General Motors said in response. “General Motors appreciates DOT’s clarification of the separate roles of federal and state governments in regulating self-driving vehicles and its guidance for state policymakers.”
Karl Brauer, auto analyst at Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book, said: “Clear guidelines that encourage innovation [are] what the industry needs as it moves toward the ultimate goal of safer, more efficient personal transportation.”
Ms Chao's speech comes on the heels of progress in Congress for the Self-Drive Act, a comprehensive bill that sets out, for the first time, a national law for autonomous vehicles.
The bill, which would increase the number of permits for self-driving cars to 100,000 annually, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and now moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. If the bill becomes law, it will fall to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation, to iron out exactly how it is implemented.