Federal Government to Release Rules for Self-Driving Cars

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Self-driving car technology is rapidly advancing — despite a couple, ahem, bumps in the road — but the White House is reportedly set to release the first nation-wide set of rules governing the manufacture and sale of autonomous cars.

The federal government will release its rulebook on Tuesday, according to reports. So far, regulations regarding self-driving cars have varied from state to state, but the new rules should be consistent across the country, preventing a complex and inconsistent patchwork of differing laws.

Under the forthcoming rules created by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Department of Transportation, companies that build or test self-driving car technology must provide the government with a substantial amount of data and address a 15-point safety assessment.

The government’s move isn’t a surprise — it’s been a busy year for autonomous car technology. Until recently, the government had essentially been content to let its preliminary 2013 guidelines stand: “The agency does not believe that self-driving vehicles are currently ready to be driven on public roads for purposes other than testing.”

That language was removed sometime earlier this year, and since then, a lot has happened: The NHTSA announced that it would release rules for self-driving cars “within six months” back in February, and the perceived need for such regulations became even more urgent in the wake of the first autonomous car fatality in May. There was talk that federal guidelines would be coming in July, but they never came, in part due to continued study following that first death.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx inspects a Google self-driving car.

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Throughout the process, though, the government signaled that it was going to err on the side of innovation rather than attempting to stifle it by overregulating, and a comment from an official in a press call on Monday seemed to support this approach.

“We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting,” Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters.

The rules, which the DOT will publish on Tuesday, haven’t been fully detailed yet but they’re expected to provide uniform regulation across all 50 states and address consumer safety concerns without overly limiting companies that have already invested heavily in self-driving cars, including Tesla, Google, and Uber.

Once the rulebook is unveiled, there will be a 60 day period for public comment, and it is expected to be updated annually.

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