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U.S. Department of Transportation releases preliminary guidelines for driveless cars

On Monday, a group of federal officials including Jeffrey Zients, Director of the National Economic Council, and Anthony Foxx, Secretary of the US Department of Transportation (DOT), released a 15-point set of guidelines for autonomous vehicle manufacturers.

The guidelines were released to address autonomous safety standards, adherence to state laws with driverless vehicles, and also clarified how current regulations can be applied to autonomous vehicles. Specifically, the guidelines covered issues such as:

  • How driverless cars should react in the event of a technological malfunction.

  • How to preserve the privacy of the passengers inside of an autonomous vehicle.

  • How passengers will be protected in the event of a crash.

  • How security measures should be in place to protect the a vehicle's autonomous technology.

  • How autonomous vehicles will communicate with their passengers and with other vehicles on the road.

Foxx stated that the DOT will enforce recalls of any autonomous vehicles that it deems unsafe, and that these manufacturers will be called upon to give data regarding the safety of their vehicles. However, the guidelines given on Monday left room for adjustment and amendment. Bryan Thomas, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), stated "We left some areas intentionally vague because we wanted to outline the areas that need to be addressed and leave the rest to innovators." according to an article by the New York Times.

Foxx also commented on the guidelines, saying "Typically, we would say a car has to meet X standard a certain way... We recognize that there are going to be different types of innovation that will come to us, and we intend to evaluate each of those on its own returns." according to an article by CNN Money.

Foxx stated that it is mutually beneficial for autonomous automakers to be up front and honest when submitting data about their vehicles, stating "It's in their best interest to be as upfront and as clear and transparent as possible because there's a market risk to putting a product out there that doesn't meet the expectations of the public."

Federal Approval Sparks Encouragement

Many auto-safety enthusiasts and federal regulators expect that autonomous cars may make national highways a much safer place. Barack Obama even expressed his own optimism for driverless cars, stating that they may help to save nearly 35,000 lives a year in an article written by him in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Zients stated during the release of the guidelines that, "We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive, instead of frustrating and exhausting," and also noted that autonomous vehicles "will save time, money and lives."

The auto manufacturer Ford, which is planning to produce fully autonomous vehicles by 2021, also expressed its ambition and stated that the new guidelines "will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles. We also look forward to collaborating with states on areas that compliment this national framework."

However, the hype for autonomous vehicles is not shared by all. Jitendra Malik, a computer vision expert of three decades, states that "Knowing what I know about computer vision, I wouldn't take my hands off the steering wheel." This sense of caution is not unfounded, as Tesla's Autopilot semiautonomous system has already been alleged to be a factor in a lethal crash in Florida last May and another crash only last week in China.

The technologies used to develop the systems that run autonomous vehicles are, in fact, based off of the human brain. Though the development of safe and fully autonomous vehicles are still only in their first stages, according to Malik. "It's early days, but it's how we get to the next level." said Malik. Fortunately, Tesla has a software update that is expected to be released within a week that will fix the issues that may have lead vehicle crashes, but these crashes provide evidence that a cautious approach to be taken to autonomous vehicle development.

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