“The federal government is all in for safer, better and more inclusive transportation, aided by automated driving systems,” Chao said.
The policy, which is the fourth version issued by the federal government, largely continues on a path of letting private companies take the lead on developing the technology with limited input from the government. That approach has been challenged as established automakers and start-ups have tested increasingly advanced self-driving cars on public streets where rules are still being set.
Chao said federal agencies would prioritize safety — although the policy document itself contained few details on how — and not prefer one technology over another or get involved in picking winners and losers.
“The goals are pretty simple. They’re clear and consistent,” Chao said. “They need to improve safety, security and the quality of life for all Americans. That’s the barometer for success.”
Chao’s speech was upbeat, touting the potential for self-driving cars to save thousands of lives, reduce traffic and help people with disabilities get around.
At the week-long conference, spread across three locations in Las Vegas, companies showed off their latest ideas and talked up similarly optimistic visions of the future.
With the new policy, the Transportation Department is seeking to help address safety concerns, as well as questions about privacy, without hampering innovation.
But in recent months, lawmakers have questioned whether the government is doing enough to ensure automated vehicles are tested and used safely. After the National Transportation Safety Board completed an investigation into a fatal crash involving a self-driving Uber SUV, the board’s chairman said safety regulators ought to compel companies to share more information about their testing.
Board member Jennifer Homendy said Wednesday that the new policy did not address the NTSB’s concerns.
“It’s very light on content,” she said. “They say safety is their priority and that’s fantastic, but they don’t back that up.”
While the new policy is designed to demonstrate consistency across the federal government, the Transportation Department and the Federal Communications Commission are at odds over how to use a key section of the airwaves that could have implications for the development of self-driving cars.
The guidance announced by Chao on Wednesday is not binding on industry, but committees in the House and Senate are both working on legislation that could lead to new rules. The federal auto safety regulator has also circulated changes to safety regulations inside the administration and is considering a petition from General Motors to make cars without steering wheels.
Expectations for how soon self-driving cars might be widely deployed have cooled, especially after the Uber crash. The NTSB investigation revealed that the company’s system didn’t consider jaywalkers such as the one killed.
In her speech, Chao acknowledged that the “technologies are not yet advanced enough to enable wide-scale deployment of fully autonomous vehicles.”
But the technology continues to evolve, and Waymo, a self-driving car company affiliated with Google, has begun taking journalists on rides in Arizona without a human driver behind the wheel to take over in an emergency.
Systems short of complete automation are also increasingly being installed in high-end cars, a development Chao said should make streets safer, calling the new tools “remarkable.”
But there will probably be more bumps along the way. Research published last month by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that drivers using automation that still requires them to monitor the road became more easily distracted.