Secretary Foxx at Detroit Auto Show.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, right, walks the Detroit Auto Show with NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. Photo courtesy of

President Obama said in his recent State of the Union address that he plans for the United States to invest in a 21st-century transportation system.

Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced part of that plan, namely an investment of nearly $4 billion over 10 years for real-world projects that will hasten the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Foxx made the announcement at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, joined by technology leaders, automobile manufacturing executives, and industry newcomers. He noted that DOT is removing possible roadblocks to pave the way for the integration of “innovative, transformational” automotive technology that will improve safety, mobility, and sustainability in a significant way.

Secretary Foxx said:

We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people. Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.

Foxx also released policy guidance that updates the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2013 preliminary policy statement on self-driving vehicles. The new guidance reflects the reality that the widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is now feasible.

Safety Factor

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind said that the Department is using every possible tool to get self-driving vehicles onto the roads as soon as is feasible, because the technology can prevent 94% of fatal crashes that involve human error. He said:

We will work with state partners toward creating a consistent national policy on these innovations, provide options now and into the future for manufacturers seeking to deploy autonomous vehicles, and keep our safety mission paramount at every stage.

Foxx said that as many as 25,000 traffic deaths last year could have been prevented if most of the vehicles on the roads were autonomous, Bill Vlasic wrote for The New York Times.

Efficient Commuting

Jeremy Hsu, writing for IEEE Spectrum, said experts have predicted that self-driving vehicles will make commuting more efficient and will lead to a new industry of robo-taxi services. Autonomous cars also will make it possible for more people to do without their own cars, and will reduce the number of cars on the road, alleviating traffic. Other experts have pointed out that self-driving vehicles will help disabled people, children, and older people to get around.

DOT Plans for 2016

The DOT is committing to several milestones in 2016:

  • Within six months, NHTSA will work with industry and other stakeholders to further develop guidance on the safe operation of autonomous vehicles, which performance characteristics they will need, and which tests and analysis methods should be used to evaluate them.
  • Within six months NHTSA will work with states, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and other stakeholders to create a model autonomous vehicle policy for states, which will lead to a consistent national policy.
  • Foxx encourages manufacturers to submit requests for rule interpretations that could contribute to technology innovation. As an example, DOT writes that NHTSA responded to BMW’s interpretation request, confirming that that automaker’s remote self-parking system complies with federal safety standards.

Getting Autonomous Cars on the Road

When interpretation authority is not sufficient, Secretary Foxx further encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of the agency’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. 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.

In addition, DOT and NHTSA vowed to develop new tools and to consider seeking new authorities when necessary to make sure that fully autonomous vehicles (ones with no human driver) can be on the roads in large numbers, as long as they provide an “equivalent or higher” level of safety than now available. A website started by Bryant Walker Smith and maintained by Gabriel Weiner at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School,Automated Driving: Legislative and Regulatory Action,” lists state regulations currently being debated or which are in effect. As that site notes, Colorado’s 2013 attempt to pass bill SB 13-016 to regulate autonomous vehicles failed and was indefinitely postponed.

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