U.S. Transportation Secretary: No Federal Regs on Self-Driving Cars — For Now

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told reporters last week that he plans on giving guidance on how his department will approach autonomous vehicles, but isn't working on plans to regulate them.

by / January 11, 2016
A driver sits behind the wheel of a Delphi autonomous vehicle as it makes a journey across the U.S. in 2015. Delphi

Amid a flurry of news about self-driving cars surrounding the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week, the U.S. Transportation Secretary told reporters that his department doesn’t plan on regulating autonomous vehicles — at least not right now.

The federal Department of Transportation isn’t currently working on any plans to introduce regulations for the testing or operation of self-driving cars, according to the Detroit News. For now, the department is focusing on other areas tangentially related to autonomous vehicles (AVs): its proposal to require all new cars to have vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure connection capability, as well as its Smart City Challenge that promises $50 million to whichever city wins over the department with a vision for high-tech traffic system projects.

While the department holds off on AV regulations, a schism continues to divide those working on bringing self-driving cars to market. Many wish to see cars that are capable of driving themselves with or without a human capable of taking over, while others want cars that drive themselves but have a human at the wheel as a failsafe at the very least.

The latter attitude gained a big supporter in December when the California Department of Motor Vehicles proposed regulations that would require, at least for the near future, a licensed driver to be ready to take over for a car driving in autonomous mode. Google, which has been working on AV prototypes without steering wheels, pushed back immediately against the proposal, while California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom painted the move as one that would stifle innovation in the automotive industry in the state.

“These latest draft regulations may prove too onerous, create road blocks to innovation, and may ultimately drive the development of this promising industry to other states,” Newsom said in a statement. “Although the DMV is already a year behind schedule, I look forward to intensified dialogue between the state, manufacturers, and the public to improve the regulations. We must guard against unreasonably holding back California from doing what it does best — inventing the future.”

Meanwhile, states like Texas — where Google has begun testing its AVs — remain silent on regulating the vehicles. Other states, like Michigan, have passed laws and adopted regulations vaguer than California’s.

While the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t plan on entering the fray right now, Foxx did say that it might pursue such regulations in the future. Specifically, he told re/code, his department is working on guidance right now that will let states know how the department intends to approach automated vehicle technology. He said he expects to make an announcement on that front within weeks.

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