Automakers are generally free to make autonomous vehicles as long as they are configured as a traditional car or truck so that they include features such as gas and brake pedals and a steering wheel, the Department of Transportation said Friday.
But regulatory hurdles mount as the design of a self-driving vehicle starts to wander.
Deploying rear-facing front seats or leaving hidden electronics to control functions such as speed, steering and braking are not permitted under existing federal motor vehicle standards, according to a 148-page report from the agency.
“We are witnessing a revolution in auto technology that has the potential to save thousands of lives,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “In order to achieve that potential, we need to establish guidelines for manufacturers that clearly outline how we expect automated vehicles to function – not only safely, but more safely – on our roads.”
As it develops new rules, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will hold two hearings this spring on guidelines for the deployment of self-driving vehicles. The first will be April 8 in Washington, D.C. The second will be held in California with the date and location still to be worked out.
In its report, the agency said that current Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards “do not explicitly address automated vehicle technology and often assume the presence of a human driver.”
This is likely to create confusion for manufacturers of autonomous vehicles as they decide to choose varied concepts.
The report, which reviewed the technical regulations motor vehicles must adhere to if they are to operate on U.S. roads, found that there are almost no current restrictions “on some automated vehicle concepts, which highlights the need to establish clear expectations for their safe operation,” said Mark Rosekind, NHTSA’s administrator.
“At the same time, for other vehicle designs, the agency has more work to do to ensure the safety of new innovations,” Rosekind said.
Regulators need to tackle these issues because automakers and others are moving forward with plans for self-driving cars and truck.
Last month, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.
The patent documents depict a typical delivery truck – similar to what UPS and FedEx use – with lockers on the outside. The vehicle would robotically drive to a home or office and digitally signal the recipient that their package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, punch a code into the locker’s keypad and remove their package.
Other companies are working on self-driving trucks.
Freightliner last year obtained a Nevada license to test its Inspiration self-driving truck on public highways. The company said the bigrig is an important step in robotic driving.
Both Google and Freightliner say autonomous vehicle technology will reduce accidents, improve fuel consumption and cut highway congestion.
Traditional automakers are also moving forward.
General Motors Co. said Friday that it is acquiring Cruise Automation, a three-year-old San Francisco company that is developing self-driving car software.
GM said the acquisition will accelerate its autonomous vehicle technology efforts.
“Fully autonomous vehicles can bring our customers enormous benefits in terms of greater convenience, lower cost and improved safety for their daily mobility needs,” said Dan Ammann, GM’s president.
There’s a dearth of companies with autonomous driving software expertise, said Egil Juliussen, research director and analyst at IHS Automotive.
The Cruise purchase “clearly shows that GM is serious about developing the technology and controlling its own path to self-driving and driverless vehicles,” he said.
Moreover, GM’s recent $500 million investment in the Lyft ride-sharing service demonstrates that the automaker also will “participate in the future market for mobility services via fleets of driverless cars,” Juliussen said.
Also on Friday, Ford Motor Co. announced the establishment of a subsidiary that will design and invest in emerging mobility services, which include ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles.
“Ensuring the freedom of mobility requires us to continually look beyond the needs of today and interpret what mobility will mean to future generations,” said Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman. “This new subsidiary will enable us to develop mobility solutions to address the rapidly changing transportation challenges of an increasingly crowded world.”