US government seeks new powers to veto self-driving car technology

Driverless vehicle technology will have to be reviewed and approved before it hits the road at a federal level under new powers sought by the Obama administration.

It wants the government to be able to make country-wide decisions about the safety of self-driving vehicles rather than the current system which sees individual states set their own regulations.

Google criticised California last year when the state proposed draft rules requiring steering wheels and a licensed driver in all self-driving cars.

The US Transportation Department, which said states should not set separate rules, also issued voluntary guidelines and urged automakers to certify that their highly automated vehicles were ready for public roads.

"If a self-driving car isn't safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road. We won't hesitate to protect the American public's safety," President Barack Obama wrote. "We have to get it right."

Automakers and technology companies are racing to develop vehicles that can drive themselves at least part of the time, but they have complained that state and federal safety rules impede the process.

Obama wrote the administration is asking automakers "to sign a 15-point safety checklist showing not just the government, but every interested American, how they're doing it."

The technology has generated some controversy recently after former Tesla partner Mobileye blamed its split with the company on its disregard for vehicle safety with regards to its fledgling Autopilot functionality which led to a fatal accident earlier this year. 

The new federal guidelines include testing, backup systems in the case of a self-driving computer failure, and recording and sharing data. Companies would also have to demonstrate how vehicles would comply with all traffic laws, how they would fare in crashes and how they would perform after a crash.

The government currently allows automakers to self-certify that vehicles comply with safety standards.

US transportation secretary Anthony Foxx said on a conference call with reporters that a new premarket approval system overseen by the government "would require a lot more upfront discussion, dialogue and staffing on our part."

A person briefed on the guidelines prior to their release said they urge states not to require the presence of a licensed driver in the driver seat when a highly automated vehicle is in operation.

"When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply," Foxx said on Monday. The goal is to "avoid a patchwork of state laws," he added.

On Monday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles said in a statement that it would not comment until it saw the guidelines, but said it planned to release revised draft regulations in the coming weeks.

The technology could hit the mainstream in the near future with John Zimmer, co-founder of smartphone-based ridesharing company Lyft, saying on Sunday that driverless taxis are just five years off. 

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