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Feds tweak driverless-car guidelines, seek to balance safety and tech development

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

LAS VEGAS -- Driverless cars and trucks will be hitting the highways in increasing numbers over the next few years. The U.S. Department of Transportation doesn't want to get in the way.

That's the message in a new set of guidelines the DOT released Wednesday. The intent is to spur further development while, the department said, emphasizing safety.

"Safety is always No. 1 at the U.S. Department of Transportation," said DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, in a short speech at CES in Las Vegas, the big consumer electronics show, where the new guidelines were announced. But "remaining technology neutral" is a DOT commitment and "protecting American innovation and creativity" is another top priority.

Chao also noted the DOT has proposed rules requiring "remote IDs" for drones weighing more than half a pound. That would allow the FAA, law enforcement and federal security agencies to identify drones flying in their jurisdiction, she said.

"Recent news reports out of Colorado and Nebraska of mystery drones flying in formations at night is a timely illustration of why remote IDs are needed," she said. The public comment period for the new drone rules extends through March.

Federal driverless vehicle guidelines have been issued on a roughly annual basis since 2016, with a strong emphasis on "voluntary guidance." The federal government sets safety standards and the states are in charge of licensing. In California the Department of Motor Vehicles has established rules for driverless deployment that include insurance requirements as well as requirements that local safety officials be informed when robot cars are operating in their area.

 

Some safety advocates say regulators haven't caught up with the technology. But rather than push new regulations, the DOT has been issuing suggestions and encouraging cooperation on a uniform approach to driverless development among federal, state and local government officials and industry.

The biggest change in the new set of guidelines, called Automated Vehicles 4.0, is a streamlined system of federal oversight. Without offering specifics, Chao said the new guidelines "unified AV efforts across 38 federal departments, independent agencies, commissions and executive offices of the president."

Driverless car technology is developing more slowly than Silicon Valley companies were predicting several years ago. Deployment plans have been delayed, including GM Cruise's original intent to have robotaxis operating commercially on the streets of San Francisco by now.

But development inches forward. Waymo, the driverless car offshoot of Google, is already operating a commercial robotaxi service in the Phoenix area and is offering driverless rides to employees and guests on public roads in Silicon Valley. Waymo wants to offer a small-scale robotaxi service there, but so far, the state's Public Utilities Commission, which regulates ride hailing services, won't allow it to charge for rides.

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