Transportation Regulators to Remove ‘Unnecessary’ Barriers to Self-Driving Cars

It'll be a boon to automakers and tech companies.

In September, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill paving the way for increased testing of self-driving cars, but with no apparent input from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency that will be charged with enforcing any new rules. Now the regulator is considering its own self-driving car rules, and it seems to have a similar attitude to Congress.

The NHTSA is asking automakers and tech companies to identify “any unnecessary regulatory barriers to automated safety technologies.”

The move is likely another manifestation of the Trump Administration’s disdain for regulations, but it could also clear up some legal ambiguities. For example, Federal Motors Vehicle Safety Standards include a rule specifying that cars be equipped with a brake pedal operated by the driver’s foot. Amending that rule to include automated braking systems would be necessary to ensure self-driving cars comply with the letter of the law.

But this could also be an opportunity for companies to push for more lax rules. In September, the Department of Transportation issued updates to its voluntary autonomous vehicle guidelines that rolled back some policies from the Obama Administration. The new guidelines reduce the previous 15-point recommended safety assessment to 12 points, eliminating questions related to ethics, privacy, and data sharing beyond crash information.

Similarly, the bill passed unanimously by the House in September seems aimed more at streamlining the process for getting self-driving cars on the road than intensely scrutinizing the technology. It waives safety standards for a larger number of test vehicles than would be allowed under current regulations. The bill received praise from automakers but was criticized by people outside the industry for being too lenient. The Senate is now considering a companion bill.

The NHTSA will be tasked with enforcing the provisions of any legislation, so it’s about time the agency finalized its own self-driving car policies. In drafting the first round of autonomous-car rules, regulators need to strike a balance between responsible rules and restrictions that may hinder the development of the technology. So far, it doesn’t seem like excessive restrictions will be the problem, though.