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U.S. DOT to Release Model Policy for Regulating Self-Driving Cars, Fund $4B in Research

The U.S. Department of Transportation's announcement signals a support for fully autonomous vehicles that was lacking in a regulatory announcement last month from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

The federal government is officially intervening in the way states go about regulating self-driving vehicles — and its tone is one of accelerating deployment.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx appeared at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit on the morning of Thursday, Jan. 14, to announce that he hopes to release to states within the next six months a model policy for regulating autonomous vehicles. While he didn’t give out specifics of what the model policy might look like, a statement from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) makes it clear that it will leave the door open for cars that are able to drive without a human.

Toward the goal of speeding up deployment of autonomous vehicle technology, the White House announced that President Obama’s next budget will call for $4 billion in research funding for self-driving cars, and vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology.

That could put the federal government on the side of companies working toward autonomous technology like Google, which has pushed for cars without steering wheels. The company protested the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ draft regulations released in December, which would require a licensed driver to sit behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle ready to take over.

There are differing schools of thought on the two approaches. Google has touted the ability of fully autonomous vehicles to grant better mobility to people who can’t currently drive, like the blind. Some, like ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber, have envisioned autonomous vehicle fleets that can be summoned much like their human-driven cars are today. That could mean a shift toward shared vehicle ownership, where people use fleets of shared AVs to get around instead of owning personal cars.

But California’s proposed approach could actually lead to more rapid deployment of partially autonomous technology, according to Brandon Schoettle with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. If autonomous vehicles are only asked to drive themselves under limited conditions, as the California draft regulations would require, then that would mean that automakers could focus on tackling only the core problems standing in the way of widespread AV deployment. Then they could enjoy the benefit of learning lessons from public driving of the vehicles while working to make cars that can drive themselves without ever needing to hand control over to a human.

In fact, NHTSA could use its weight as a federal agency to allow automakers to get around the California DMV’s regulations if they’re adopted.

“When interpretation authority is not sufficient, Sec. Foxx further encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of the agency’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles,” a Thursday press release reads. “Exemption authority allows NHTSA to enable the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for up to two years if the agency determines that an exemption would ease development of new safety features.”

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.