The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thinks self-driving vehicles could be the biggest shift in American transportation since the automobile usurped the streetcar, and it released new guidelines for the emerging technology today so it can make sure that shift will create as few problems as possible.
The NHTSA is quick to point out that the preliminary guidelines it published today aren’t legally binding — companies working on self-driving vehicles will follow these suggestions of their own volition. That could change, though, and companies are encouraged to follow these guidelines.
Many of NHTSA’s hopes for driverless cars — reducing the number of people killed in traffic accidents, improving public transportation, helping the environment — could take decades to come to fruition. So what effect will these guidelines have on the average person in 2016? The answer will probably be found in Pittsburgh.
Earlier this month, Uber started testing its self-driving vehicles on Pittsburgh’s streets. The idea is to gather as much data as possible so the autonomous cars will learn how to handle a variety of situations.
NHTSA encourages manufacturers to run these tests and share their findings with each other and the government. It hopes automated vehicles will “benefit from the data and experience drawn from thousands of other vehicles on the road” to improve safety. Here’s what that means in practice, according to the agency:
This Guidance is intended to be an initial step to further guide the safe testing and deployment of [highly automated vehicles]. It sets DOT’s expectations of industry by providing reasonable practices and procedures that manufacturers, suppliers, and other entities should follow in the immediate short term to test and deploy [highly automated vehicles]. The data generated from these activities should be shared in a way that allows government, industry, and the public to increase their learning and understanding as technology evolves but protects legitimate privacy and competitive interests.
That will be the immediate effect. NHTSA doesn’t say much in its guidelines about semi-autonomous tools like Tesla’s Autopilot, even though some have speculated that these guidelines were delayed because of a fatal crash involving that tech, which limits the effect they’ll have today.
Still, if more people start to notice that the person driving next to them has a weird-looking vehicle and doesn’t have their hands on the steering wheel, these guidelines could explain why. NHTSA has basically opened America’s roads up to more experimentation with autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars are coming.
The full NHTSA guidelines on self-driving vehicles can be found below:Photos via Giphy, Getty Images / Justin Sullivan