Administration asserts role in regulating autonomous vehicles

The Obama administration clearly defined its role in regulating autonomous vehicles Tuesday with a new federal policy outlining the relationship between state and federal laws for driverless cars.
(Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect comments from a DOT press conference after initial publication. 

The Obama administration clearly defined its role in regulating autonomous vehicles Tuesday with a new federal policy outlining the relationship between state and federal laws for driverless cars.

The policy, most of which went into effect with publication, “sets out an ambitious approach to accelerate the [highly automated vehicle] revolution,” according to the document. It outlines a vehicle performance guide, a model for state policy and current regulatory tools available, as well as future tools the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could consider seeking.

That agency said in the guidance it expects to build on the policy by further researching areas such as cybersecurity.


Federal government’s responsibility with driverless cars will be mainly setting standards for vehicles and their equipment, including software, as well as managing recalls. States would continue licensing human drivers, and enforcing traffic safety laws and regulations.

“Regulation can go too far,” President Barack Obama wrote in an op-ed Monday. “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.”

NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind noted at a press conference announcing the policy Tuesday that Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx’s, “vision and strategy, his charge to us, was to create a path for a fully autonomous driver with different designs than what we have on the road today.”

If people look to the policy, Rosekind said, it provides that path.

Obama’s editorial touted the potential of self-driving cars to prevent deadly crashes — 94 percent of which are caused by some human error.


“Autonomous vehicle technology, and specifically the driverless cars, can absolutely be a game changer in behavioral traffic safety,” Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said at the event Tuesday. “Driverless cars have the potential to eliminate drunk, drugged and drowsy driving.”

In his editorial, President Obama also noted that driverless cars could provide transportation options to senior citizens or the disabled.

At DOT’s press conference, Henry Claypool, policy director at the Community Living Policy Center at the University of California-San Francisco, applauded the administration for bringing a focus on enabling underrepresented groups to use driverless cars as well.

“Autonomous vehicles have the potential to improve the lives of millions of Americans, like me, who because of a disability, age or other condition, are not able to enjoy easy access to personal transportation,” Claypool said.

He added: “In particular, the policy that passengers in fully autonomous vehicles would not be required to have a driver’s license is a critically important step. National leadership is required to set a tone of inclusion and prevent discriminatory policymaking at the state and local levels.”


Under the new state policy model, states were told that autonomous vehicles at the top two levels — SAE International levels of automation four and five — would not require a licensed human driver.

Other groups have reacted positively to the policy. Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, called the policy “a welcome approach to avoid patchwork laws.”

An official of the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets (created by Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber and Volvo Cars) called the policy “an important step forward in establishing the basis of a national framework for the deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

“We support guidance that provides for the standardization of self-driving policies across all 50 states, incentivizes innovation, supports rapid testing and deployment in the real world,” David Strickland, coalition spokesperson and general counsel, said in a statement.

And in a blog post, Information Technology Industry Council Vice President Vince Jesaitis wrote: “While we are still fully digesting the new guidance, it appears to take some very positive steps to provide certainty for the private sector to move forward and increase the commitment of significant resources needed to usher in the life-improving benefits this transformational technology offers for safety, efficiency and quality of life.”


The new policy also recommends automakers conduct a voluntary 15-point safety self-assessment for autonomous cars to “certify that their vehicles are ready for public roads.” The assessment covers areas such as data recording and sharing, vehicle cybersecurity, and ethical considerations.

While that self-assessment is voluntary for now, Foxx noted DOT intends to possibly change that in the future.

“We do expect that companies will want to engage with us on that 15-point assessment, much in the same way that folks want to engage with us on the NCAP [New Car Assessment Program] standards,” Foxx noted. “It’s a good business practice for them, and frankly, it provides some assurance that they’ve thought comprehensively about safety.”

But the policy also suggests other routes NHTSA could consider, such as pursuing pre-market approval authority. It could inspect and approve new technologies before they go to market instead of leaving certification up to automakers, or have a hybrid approach that combines both the self-assessment and pre-market approval, the policy explains.

A senior DOT official said choosing to regulate through pre-market approval or the hybrid approach would be a “very significant change that would have implications both for how vehicles are regulated but also for the resources of the agency.”


DOT is seeking public comment on the policy and plans to get input through public outreach efforts. The department expects to update the policy annually, Foxx said at the press conference.

Samantha Ehlinger

Written by Samantha Ehlinger

Samantha Ehlinger is a technology reporter for FedScoop. Her work has appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and several McClatchy papers, including Miami Herald and The State. She was a part of a McClatchy investigative team for the “Irradiated” project on nuclear worker conditions, which won a McClatchy President’s Award. She is a graduate of Texas Christian University. Contact Samantha via email at, or follow her on Twitter at @samehlinger. Subscribe to the Daily Scoop for stories like this in your inbox every morning by signing up here:

Latest Podcasts