The United States Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken important steps to simplify the legal framework surrounding autonomous vehicles. The Trump administration published a verbose policy initiative that outlines the steps it will take to give car and technology companies more freedom to develop, test, and ultimately sell the technology to the public.
In an 80-page document, transportation secretary Elaine Chao recognized the pros and cons of self-driving vehicles. On one hand, they can lead to safer roads while making life more productive, more relaxing, or both for the millions of commuters across America. On the other hand, getting to that point requires incorporating new risks into the automotive landscape. Elaine Herzberg’s death illustrated one of the more extreme scenarios.
The DOT promises to adopt flexible policies that prioritize safety while remaining technology-neutral. It wants to foster competition rather than to create a monopoly by giving certain companies an advantage in this highly lucrative field. It hasn’t outlined the changes it will make yet, however.
“U.S. DOT will modernize or eliminate outdated regulations that unnecessarily impede the development of automated vehicles or that do not address critical safety needs. Whenever possible, the department will support the development of voluntary, consensus-based technical standards and approaches that are flexible and adaptable over time,” the initiative stressed.
The government has started working toward the establishment of a national standard for testing self-driving cars. Laws currently vary from state to state and, sometimes, from city to city. For example, California’s Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) shut down Uber’s self-driving program in December 2016 when the company refused to apply for a testing permit in San Francisco. Uber swiftly moved its program to Phoenix, Arizona, after the governor’s office gave it a blank check.
The White House will invest in infrastructure upgrades when needed, especially when it comes to crucial vehicle-to-anything (V2X) technology, but it won’t directly fund the development of autonomous technology. That not-insignificant burden will continue to fall on the lap of the companies who want to reap the rewards, like Uber, General Motors, and Volvo. Chao’s statement also made it clear that the DOT’s goal isn’t to phase out human-driven cars and replace every vehicle on the road with one that’s autonomous. It wants to let motorists choose how they get around.
“U.S. DOT embraces the freedom of the open road, which includes the freedom for Americans to drive their own vehicles. We envision an environment in which automated vehicles operate alongside conventional, manually driven vehicles and other road users,” it concluded.