Controversial Federal Guidelines for Autonomous Vehicles Out

Autoinformed.comThe U.S. Department of Transportation today published a Federal policy for autonomous vehicles that are well on the way to appearing on roads.

DOT claims the overdue guidelines provide a “path for the safe testing and deployment of new auto technologies that have enormous potential for improving safety and mobility for Americans on the road.”

During 2015, 35,092 people died in U.S. traffic crashes and 2.4 million people were injured. DOT says 94% of crashes are caused in some way by human choice or error. Automation in vehicles might prevent many of the crashes that are caused by unsafe driving, potentially saving tens of thousands of lives each year.

The primary focus of the policy is on highly automated vehicles, or those in which the vehicle can take full control of driving in at least some circumstances. Portions of the policy also apply to lower levels of automation, including some of the driver-assistance systems already being deployed by automakers today.

There are several key sections. Vehicle performance guidance uses a 15-point Safety Assessment to set expectations for automakers developing and deploying automated vehicle technologies. A state policy section delineates the Federal and State roles for the regulation of highly automated vehicle technologies as part of attempt to provide a consistent national framework of laws to govern self-driving vehicles. The policy also outlines options for the further use of current federal authorities to expedite the safe introduction of highly automated vehicles into the marketplace. IT also discusses new tools and authorities the federal government may need as the technology evolves and is deployed more widely on U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx“Automated vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives, driving the single biggest leap in road safety that our country has ever taken,” claimed U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “This policy is an unprecedented step by the federal government to harness the benefits of transformative technology by providing a framework for how to do it safely.”

Fox also admitted that there are “huge upsides and significant challenges that come with automated vehicle technology.”

Not everyone is happy with DOT’s slow progress on autonomous vehicles.

“Consumers need more than just guidelines. This new policy comes with a lot of bark, but not enough bite,” said Marta Tellado, President and CEO of Consumer Reports. “While these technologies have the potential to save lives, there must be strong federal standards to protect all drivers. We can’t just leave it to the states to do the hard work of deciding whether to let a self-driving car on public roads. These cars won’t be widely accepted until consumers can trust they are safe. We urge the Transportation Department to move quickly to put actual safety standards in place for how these systems are designed and tested, before these vehicles wind up on the road.”

The Federal Automated Vehicle Policy released today comes from public input and stakeholder discussions, including two open public meetings this year and a public docket for comments. DOT is also soliciting additional public comments for the next 60 days on the policy, which is published at Through a series of next steps and in response to public comments, DOT intends to update the policy annually.

Moving beyond the traditional U.S. auto regulation approach of reactive, post-sale enforcement of safety standards, the policy is, arguably, a proactive measure.

A March 2016 study by DOT’s Volpe notes that current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards do not directly address automated vehicle technologies. Those standards can take many years to develop and are traditionally only put into force after new technologies have made significant market penetration. Instead, the automated vehicle policy calls for greater transparency as DOT works with manufacturers to ensure that safety is appropriately addressed on the front-end of development.

More details about the policy may be found at

Exec Summary of  Each Policy Section

  • 15 Point Safety Assessment –The Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles for manufacturers, developers and other organizations includes a 15 point “Safety Assessment” for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.
  • Model State Policy – This section presents a distinction between Federal and State responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles. It suggests recommended policy areas for states to consider with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles.
  • NHTSA’s Current Regulatory Tools – This discussion outlines NHTSA’s current regulatory tools that can be used to ensure the safe development of new technologies, such as interpreting current rules to allow for greater flexibility in design and providing limited exemptions to allow for testing of non-traditional vehicle designs in a timelier fashion.
  • Modern Regulatory Tools – This discussion identifies new regulatory tools and statutory authorities that policymakers may consider in the future to aid the safe and efficient deployment of new autonomous technologies.

Simultaneously with this policy, NHTSA is releasing a final enforcement guidance bulletin clarifying how its recall authority will apply to autonomous vehicle technologies. NHTSA emphasizes that semi-autonomous driving systems that fail to adequately account for the possibility that a distracted or inattentive driver-occupant might fail to retake control of the vehicle in a safety-critical situation may be defined as an unreasonable risk to safety and subject to recall.

About Kenneth Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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