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DOT Aims to Give Self-Driving Car Makers a Road Map Via Hearings, Rule Clarity

The department is working to bring some stability to the rapidly evolving field of autonomous vehicle technology.

Even as auto makers in Detroit and tech companies in Silicon Valley proclaim bold goals for putting self-driving cars on the road, they remain unable to answer some very big questions about what, exactly, the government will let them do — and when.

But the U.S. Department of Transportation is trying its utmost to clear those answers up, and those efforts got a jumpstart March 11 when officials announced that they’ll be holding a pair of conferences to collect feedback on what steps DOT should take to ensure safety in autonomous vehicles. The goal is to give companies clarity on the direction that future regulations will take.

“The feedback from these meetings will help the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration … provide manufacturers with the rules of the road for how we expect automated vehicles to operate safely,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote in a blog post.

The first hearing will happen April 8 in Washington, D.C., and the second will be in California at a to-be-determined location and date, according to the post. The department isn’t planning on a hearing in Detroit.

This is all part of a larger effort that Foxx and the U.S. DOT have taken on in recent months to try to give companies working on AV technology some support — as well as some semblance of confidence in how regulations will play out for that technology in the future. The department has also promised to put out model guidelines sometimes this year for states to follow when writing rules for AVs. During that announcement, officials noted that federal rules give them the authority to allow up to 2,500 vehicles onto the road to support the development of safety features — even if those cars don’t meet state standards.

That could be a big deal for California, where the state Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed draft regulations that would require cars to have steering wheels and brake pads, along with mechanisms that give control to a human driver whenever a car enters into circumstances that the state didn’t specifically give the car permission to drive itself in. That would mean no driverless cars ferrying around packages, scheduled in advance for rideshares or used to give people with disabilities access to better mobility.

The U.S. DOT has explicitly expressed support for those uses, and has even begun exploring how it might have to rewrite its safety standards to accommodate those types of cars. Along with the announcement of the hearings, the department’s John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center also released a report on March 11 examining which of its safety standards would stand in the way of various AV concepts.

Though the DOT clarified to Google in February that software could be considered a “driver” in order to satisfy the language of certain standards, other requirements might need a formal change.

“Automated vehicles that begin to push the boundaries of conventional design (e.g., alternative cabin layouts, omission of manual controls) would be constrained by the current (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) or may conflict with policy objectives of the FMVSS,” the Volpe report reads.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.