Google’s plan to get a fully driverless cars without a brake or steering wheel on the road just got a big push from the federal government.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released its most comprehensive policy yet on autonomous vehicles Monday night. The policy asks automakers to submit a 15-point safety assessment where automakers must explain how the cars are made and what safeguards are in place, among other things.
Currently, the policy asks for automakers to voluntarily submit the safety assessment, but NHTSA is aiming to make it mandatory through the regulatory process. This shouldn’t be a major problem since companies have been pushing for federal regulations for autonomous vehicles in order to expedite getting them on the roads outside of a test environment.
In particular, the policy proposal could be especially beneficial for Google.
Google has been publicly asking the federal government to step in and create regulations that would allow a fully driverless car without a steering wheel, brake pedal, or supervising driver to hit the roads.
NHTSA is keeping the door open for the kind of reality Google is envisioning.
“The way we’ve been resolving questions that come up as companies think about departing from those federal motor vehicle safety standards is our exemption process,” Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said when asked whether a steering wheel or brake pedal will still be required. “We intend to continue using that exemption process, but to the extent that companies have departures that they would like to make.”
Automakers can currently apply for an exemption that would allow them to deploy test vehicles with designs not compliant with federal standards. As part of the new policy, NHTSA plans to address exemption requests within six months. It used to take anywhere between “several months to several years,” according to NHTSA.
That is a similar approach taken by the Federal Aviation Administration, which released regulations for commercial drones in August. Those looking to fly outside the written parameters can apply for a waiver.
Basically, it’s not a glowing “yes” to Google, but it’s not a “no” either. As NHTSA administrator Mark Rosekind said:
“[Our charge] was to create a path for a fully autonomous driver with different designs than what we have on the road today. And so if you look at the policy, it provides that path.”
NHTSA is also leaving wiggle room as to whether a person needs to remain behind the wheel of a self-driving car. Foxx said the government will officially adopt the SAE international standards for driverless cars, which outlines different levels of automation. The last level, Level 5, describes a car that requires no human assistance at all.
“Our policy states that when the car is being operated by the software, we intend to regulate the safety of that operation,” Foxx explained. “When the human being is operating the vehicle, the conventional state laws would apply.”
Google took a hit in December when California’s Department of Motor Vehicles released a draft of regulations for the public to use driverless cars. The DMV’s proposed rules require a person to be behind the wheel in a fully autonomous vehicle, which goes against Google’s vision of releasing a car that requires no human intervention at all.
In April, Google formed a lobby with Ford and Uber dubbed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets calling for a set of driverless car rules by the federal government, rather than a state-by-state approach. This came a month after Chris Urmson, who was director of self-driving cars under Google X at the time, urged the Senate
to allow for the creation of federal laws
“Last December, we were disappointed that California released draft regulations for operation of autonomous vehicles that specifically excluded fully self-driving cars, despite strong public support for this technology, particularly from the disability community,” Urmson said to the Senate at the time.
Rosekind specifically addressed the California proposal at the press conference about the federal policy for driverless cars.
“There’s an opportunity through the coordination that has already taken place for, not just California, but for all states to coordinate to try and get that uniform consistent framework for the country,” he said.