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Feds preview rules of the road for self-driving cars

Meanwhile, Michigan plans to adopt a law that would not require a licensed driver in a self-driving vehicle while it is being tested on public roads. The results suggest that what once seemed like a technology perpetually over the horizon appears to be fast approaching, especially with vehicle companies announcing a string of investments and acquisitions in recent months.

"If a self-driving vehicle isn't safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road", Obama wrote.

Until now, the rules regarding self-driving vehicles have been hazy.

"The quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies", President Obama wrote in the op-ed.

But while "autonomous is the sexy", the "journey that gets us there" makes the real change, Sean Carey of SCG Management Consultants said earlier this month, pointing out frequency and severity forecasts by KPMG. Once the auto manufacturers clear all the requirements on the list - safe design, development, testing - they will sign and submit a safety assessment report to "certify that their vehicles are ready for public roads".

It's the strongest indication yet that the federal government is embracing autonomous vehicle technology and the benefits that come with it - including safer roads, less congestion, and eliminating driver error. "In terms of just attitude, this is huge", said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of SC who closely tracks the technology. NHTSA has basically opened America's roads up to more experimentation with autonomous vehicles.

"We think this is a really critical step towards imposing and working towards the level of safety needed in this arena", said Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

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In a nutshell, the federal government will be responsible for regulating the vehicles themselves and the technology driving them, while states are tasked with testing and certifying drivers, determining rules regarding insurance and liability, and registering the self-driving vehicles.

Under the new policy, makers of HAVs (highly automated vehicles) and other entities will have to follow a 15-point "safety assessment" checklist that requires documentation of operational and safety issues as well as of privacy protections for users, consumer education, measures to protect against hacks and ethical considerations such as how vehicles are programmed to address conflict dilemmas on the road.

The Department is also soliciting additional public comments for the next 60 days on the policy, which is published at www.transportation.gov/AV.

The department has issued the new policy as a "guidance in order to speed the delivery of an initial regulatory framework and best practices to guide manufacturers and other entities in the safe design, development, testing, and deployment of automated vehicles". That would be a departure from the agency's historic self-certification system and might require action from Congress.

A proposal put forward on Tuesday by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) calls on automakers to voluntarily submit details of self-driving vehicle systems to regulators - a 15 point "safety assessment".

The NHTSA model state policy wants to make sure there is a national regulatory framework.

"State and local governments also have complementary responsibilities and should work with the federal government to achieve and maintain our status as world leaders in innovation", said David Strickland, general counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and former NHTSA administrator.

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