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Mind and Machine

With Self-Driving Cars, The Feds Get A Tech Policy Right For A Change

Bureaucrats haven't always done a great job of regulating tech, but new DoT guidelines set a clear path for driverless vehicles.

With Self-Driving Cars, The Feds Get A Tech Policy Right For A Change

[Photo: Flickr user Martin Fisch]

For the last few months, Tesla, GM, Ford, Uber, and every other company seeking to play a part in the future of autonomous transportation has been anxiously awaiting the Next Big Thing, which would either stimulate or slow the budding industry. Well, it arrived on Monday, and while it’s not exactly a sexy product, it was exactly what the companies had been hoping for: A set of federal guidelines that offer a road map for manufacturers, without getting in the way of the rapid development of self-driving cars.

The guidelines released by the Department of Transportation lay out what the government expects from manufacturers as they build and deploy autonomous cars. Eleven of the guidelines offer broad suggestions for how companies should address concerns such as privacy, cybersecurity, certification of new features, and how drivers are educated about their autonomous vehicles. Importantly, four of the guidelines offer requirements that carmakers must consider when designing the autonomous technology itself.

Regulation of technology is a tricky thing—again and again, the U.S. government has found itself desperately trying to catch up to tech developments. Recent examples of this include bitcoin, high-bandwidth internet access, apartment sharing (a la Airbnb) and ride hailing (a la Uber). This DoT document, however, suggests the federal government is not going to get caught unawares by the autonomous ambitious of car and tech companies. As government documents go, it's a pretty piece of penmanship, covering the most critical consequences of the move from cars that are driven by humans to cars that drive themselves. It does so clearly, managing to simultaneously guide and encourage. And it makes clear that one thing matters more than anything else to the federal government: that autonomous vehicles are safe.

Detroit’s traditional automakers welcome that emphasis. This summer I had the opportunity to spend some time with GM president Dan Ammann and strategy chief Mike Ableson, the execs overseeing the company’s forays into ride sharing and autonomous vehicles. Ammann, who closed the deals to invest $500 million in Lyft and acquire Cruise Automation for $581 million, told me, "Proving safety will be a key to the development of autonomous."

Ableson, meanwhile, explained that GM has spent lots of time discussing safety issues with the National Transportation Highway Safety Administration, a DoT division. "NTHSA has been working very constructively," he said. "They’ve talked to us and other companies. They’re getting lots of input from the states as well as outside experts."

I asked Ableson if he felt that the death of a Tesla driver in May would slow down the timetable for the mass-market introduction of autonomous cars. "Not inside General Motors," he said. "Safety is always our highest priority." I heard this refrain again and again at GM. "We want to be known as industry leaders in safety," CEO Mary Barra told me. "When we put a vehicle out on the road, we’ve done everything to validate it using our 100 years of experience."

Of course, this from the same company that installed a faulty ignition switch in Chevy Cobalts and other cars, leading to well over 100 fatalities. And that’s why the real beneficiaries of the new DoT regulations are people—the actual human beings who will be shuttled here and there by self-driving vehicles.

Autonomous cars promise an enormous societal benefit: namely, a significant reduction in the number of automotive fatalities. As President Obama noted in his Pittsburgh Post-Gazette op-ed on Monday, auto accidents claimed the lives of 35,200 people in the U.S. last year. The DoT regulations lay out a clear path for carmakers to follow if they want the government to certify the safety of the autonomous cars they hope to deploy. Whoever wants to lead the way to autonomous—Detroit manufacturers, Silicon Valley upstarts, or some combination of the two—will have to hew to the rules of the DoT road.

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