New federal rules for driverless cars: What you need to know

Driverless Ubers began roaming the streets of Pittsburgh last week.

Uber's unveil of driverless cars to Pittsburgh passengers.

Uber's unveil of driverless cars to Pittsburgh passengers.

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

The federal government has given an initial green light to driverless vehicles, while throwing up a yield sign to state governments: There are brand-new guidelines for regulating the new technology that’s live on the streets of Pittsburgh.

The U.S. Department of Transportation on Monday released a 116-page document outlining a policy on driverless, or in the parlance of the government “highly automated,” vehicles.

The Washington Post summarizes:

“The specifics previewed Monday ask manufacturers to document for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) how and where they expect their vehicles to operate, how they will interact with other cars and the roadway, how they validate their testing, how they intend to protect privacy and prevent hacking, and how they would share data collected by onboard computers.”

The role that cities and states will take in regulating this new technology is of particular interest in Pennsylvania, as Uber deployed driverless vehicles on the streets of Pittsburgh last week.

We rode in one, but then again, who didn’t? Currently, its “most loyal customers” have the option to hail one and take a ride with two Uber employees: a “safety driver” and an engineer.

There’s a letter in the paper from the president

President Barack Obama, in an op-ed published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, cited crashes, pollution and accessibility (giving people with disabilities and seniors the chance to get around) as reasons why his administration supports driverless vehicles and created the guidelines.

He described the rules as “guidance that the manufacturers developing self-driving cars should follow to keep us safe.”

“We’re also giving guidance to states on how to wisely regulate these new technologies, so that when a self-driving car crosses from Ohio into Pennsylvania, its passengers can be confident that other vehicles will be just as responsibly deployed and just as safe,” the president wrote.

The Obama administration’s choice to publish the op-ed in a Pittsburgh paper is a calculated one. While Uber is not name-checked in the federal policy, its recent rollout of driverless trips to Pittsburgh customers has no doubt accelerated and influenced the national conversation around this technology.

There’s regulation, then there’s regulation

“Regulation can go too far,” Obama noted in the op-ed. “Government sometimes gets it wrong when it comes to rapidly changing technologies. That’s why this new policy is flexible and designed to evolve with new advances.”

Both Pittsburgh and state officials have adopted what Nick Seaver dubbed the “‘Air Bud’ rule” toward Uber and driverless vehicles: To wit, ain’t no rule says a car can’t be driverless.

Mayor Bill Peduto told the New York Times, “It’s not our role to throw up regulations or limit companies like Uber. You can either put up red tape or roll out the red carpet. If you want to be a 21st-century laboratory for technology, you put out the carpet.”

In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Peduto said he applauded the “Obama Administration for carefully considering the balance between encouraging innovation and protecting public safety.”

“We look forward to working with the Administration over the coming months as they solicit feedback and evolve the policy to keep pace with this rapidly emerging technology,” the mayor said.

At the moment in Pennsylvania, you don’t need a “special permit or license,” “unique registration” or “safety clearance” to operate a driverless car, the Atlantic reported.

That will change once Uber, or another company, starts charging for rides.

The new federal guidelines lay out a “model state policy,” under which states “retain their traditional responsibilities for vehicle licensing and registration, traffic laws and enforcement, and motor vehicle insurance and liability regimes.”

The feds, on the other hand, are responsible for:

  • Setting safety standards for new motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment
  • Making sure companies with robo-cars follow safety rules
  • When things are defective, make sure they get recalled
  • Regularly talk to the public about safety issues
  • Make sure people are clear about safety goals

What happens next

The feds want your input on the entire policy — “although most of this policy is effective immediately upon publication,” the document notes. The department also said it intends to hold two public meetings, but didn’t specify when or where.

DOT held a press conference at noon today, which you can watch below.