SACRAMENTO—The Obama administration on Tuesday will roll out new policies governing autonomous vehicles that give the federal government a lead role in developing safety, testing and road-ready rules for the fast-growing industry.
The long-awaited policy, outlined broadly by federal officials in a press briefing Monday, includes a voluntary 15-point "safety assessment" for automakers developing and testing driverless cars as well as model state regulations expected to address areas where local agencies will have more discretion, such as liability standards.
"When a human being is operating the vehicle, the state laws that have conventionally applied will still apply," said U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "But in terms of our approach to the regulatory environment of a software-driven car, we intend to occupy the field there."
Foxx did not use the word "preemption" while talking with reporters Monday. But the new policy, based on officials' descriptions, would appear to supersede many of the testing and operational regulations already drafted by California and a handful of other states.
A spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles said agency leaders had not yet received the policy and could not comment on it.
"The DMV is looking forward to seeing the public document set to be released by US DOT and continuing a path forward for successful deployment of autonomous vehicles," DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez said in an email.
Carmakers, safety advocates, engineers and industry vendors have been waiting for the policy since January, when Foxx announced at a Detroit auto show that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would release guidance this summer. Since then, new questions about autonomous vehicle safety have been raised with news of two fatal accidents involving Teslas operating in self-driving mode and Uber Technologies Inc.'s launch of a software-driven fleet in Pittsburgh.
The new federal policy will include elements sought by car safety advocates. NHTSA will retain its ability to recall dangerous autonomous vehicles, and Foxx said his department will be exploring new regulations, some of which will need congressional approval. NHTSA also is expected to release a new enforcement bulletin specifying that new autonomous driving systems that don't account for distracted drivers may be deemed too dangerous for the road. Additionally, NHTSA is seeking public comment on whether cars that don't require steering wheels or foot pedals—such as those Google is developing—should be subject to new safety standards.
"The devil is going to be in the details," said John Simpson, a privacy advocate for Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog. "That said, my initial pass at this suggests that they're not exactly waving a checkered flag at the autonomous vehicle, robot car industry."
The new policy will be available to the public Tuesday at http://www.transportation.gov/av.
"We are very, very enthusiastic about the approach that we've taken," Foxx said. "We believe we've struck the right balance between safety and innovation and in fact shown how those two things can work with each other and not at cross-purposes."