WASHINGTON • United States federal auto safety regulators have made it official: They are betting the nation's highways will be safer with more cars driven by machines and not people.
In long-awaited guidelines for the booming industry of automated vehicles, the Obama administration promised strong safety oversight, but sent a clear signal to automakers that the door was wide open for driverless cars.
"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," said National Economic Council director Jeffrey Zients, adding that highly automated vehicles "will save time, money and lives".
The statements were the most aggressive signal yet by federal regulators that they see automated technology as a win for car safety. Yet having officially endorsed the fast- evolving technology, regulators must now balance the commercial interests of companies including Tesla, Google and Uber with concerns over public safety, especially in the light of recent crashes involving semi-autonomous cars.
The new guidelines targeted four main areas. The US Transportation Department announced a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles; called for states to come up with uniform policies on driverless cars; clarified how current regulations can be applied to driverless cars; and opened the door for new regulations on the technology.
The 15-point safety assessment covers issues including how driverless cars should react if their technology fails, what measures to put in place to preserve passenger privacy, and how occupants will be protected in crashes.
The points also include how carmakers should approach the digital security of driverless vehicles, and how a car can communicate with passengers and other road users. The department also said it would assert its authority to recall semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles found to be unsafe.
But the guidelines were not nearly as specific as the safety requirements imposed on standard human-driven vehicles today. "We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators," said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Bryan Thomas.
Regulators are racing to catch up with driverless and semi-autonomous car development. Electric-car maker Tesla has sold tens of thousands of cars with a self-driving feature known as Autopilot. The firm has been grappling with fallout from the death in May of a driver in Florida who had the Autopilot on, and another crash in China last week.
Ride-hailing giant Uber began trials in Pittsburgh last week to let loyal customers order rides from driverless cars via their smartphone app, and Google has been testing self-driving cars.