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Feds preview rules for self-driving cars

September 23, 2016
Federal officials have been struggling with how to capitalize on the benefits of self-driving cars — they can react faster than people, but don’t drink or get distracted — while making sure the cars are ready for widespread use. New guidance represents their current thinking, which they hope will bring some order to what has been a chaotic rollout so far.
Self-driving cars have the potential to save thousands of lives lost on the nation’s roads each year and to change the lives of the elderly and the disabled, President Barack Obama said in an op-ed published Sept. 19 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
"Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads. That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like," Obama wrote. But he added: "We have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow."
One self-driving technology expert said the overall tenor of the guidance signaled that the federal government truly has embraced autonomous driving. 
"In terms of just attitude, this is huge," said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who closely tracks the technology. He also cautioned that many details remain unclear.
Under the proposal, the federal transportation regulators, rather than states, should be in charge of regulating self-driving cars since the vehicles are essentially controlled by software, not people, administration officials said.
States historically have set the rules for licensing drivers, but when the driver becomes a computer "we intend to occupy the field here," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. States, he said, should stick to registering the cars and dealing with questions of liability when they crash.
Automakers should also be allowed to self-certify the safety of autonomous vehicles by following a 15-point checklist for safe design, development, testing and deployment, said officials who briefed reporters. Though companies are not required to follow the guidance — it is voluntary and does not carry the force of formal regulation — Foxx said he expects compliance.
"It’s in their vested interest to go through the rigors that we’re laying out here" to gain the confidence of both regulators and the public, Foxx said.