The Obama administration issued its policy for autonomous cars and trucks Tuesday, giving vehicle manufacturers wide latitude to develop technology the government believes will enhance safety by eventually replacing human drivers with computers.
Regulators from the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the guidelines will foster technology that will reduce the frequency of fatalities and crashes on U.S. roads. More than 35,000 people died in roadway collisions in 2015, and 94 percent of the crashes “can be tied to a human choice or error,” according to the government.
“In the 50 years of the U.S. Department of Transportation, there has never been a moment like this,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, “a moment where we can build a culture of safety as a new transportation technology emerges that harnesses the potential to save even more lives and that will improve the quality of life for so many Americans.”
He said the new guidelines are the “most comprehensive national automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen.”
Regulators said the guidelines focus “on highly automated vehicles, or those in which the vehicle can take full control of the driving task.”
NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said the federal policy applies equally to trucks and commercial vehicles.
The new policy includes a 15-point safety assessment for manufacturers, developers and other organizations to guide the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.
Traffic safety regulators have developed a five-level scale to assess vehicle automation, concentrating on level 3 – where the automated system “can both actually conduct some parts of the driving task with a human driver behind the wheel to take over – to level 5, where “the automated system can perform all driving tasks.”
Safety groups are lining up behind the new policy.
“A self-driving car can’t get drunk. A self-driving car can’t get distracted. And a self-driving car will follow the traffic laws and prioritize safety for pedestrians and bicyclists.” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers against Drunk Driving.
Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group that has criticized Tesla Motors' autonomous driving function following two high profile crashes, said it was glad to see that NHTSA will exercise its authority to force manufacturers to recall and repair vehicles that have faulty self-driving functions.
“The language is very clear that they would have the authority to recall a Tesla based on the crashes that have happened,” said John Simpson, a Consumer Watchdog spokesman.
But a debate is brewing over whether the guidelines should preempt state laws regulating the operations of autonomous vehicles, especially over the qualifications of test drivers that for now are required to monitor self-driving vehicle operations and be able to take over the controls.
“There is a danger that really good state regulations like California will end up being preempted or changed,” Simpson said. “That could be a potential problem.”
The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank, said NHTSA failed to include a test driver license reciprocity provision in the policy recommendations. This could hamper the development and operations of autonomous vehicles in metropolitan areas that span across multiple states.
And Joan Claybrooke, a former NHTSA administrator and safety advocate, said regulators must still establish minimum federal safety standards for self-driving vehicles and autonomous driving functions such as automatic breaking.
Voluntary standards, she said, are “useless.”
Truck manufacturers said the new federal policy is an important step for the industry.
“This kind of collaborative environment between the federal government, state and municipal entities and industry often leads to swift and safe adoption of technologies that are beneficial to society in a way that avoids a nationwide patchwork of varied and potentially conflicting laws,” said Jessica Nigro, spokeswoman for Daimler Trucks.
Daimler Trucks has been testing a self-driving Freightliner in Nevada and autonomous trucks in Europe.
Automakers and businesses developing self-driving technology also welcomed the guidelines.
“A federal approach to the self-driving industry will be key to enhancing motor vehicle safety while continuing to promote U.S. leadership, competitiveness and innovation,” said David Strickland, a former NHTSA administrator and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo Cars.
Ford is pushing quickly into autonomous driving. Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technology officer, told Trucks.com last month that the automaker is looking to use its driverless technology for several potential markets, including both car-sharing and delivery services. It is part of initiative to have a fully self-driving car— without a steering wheel or driver controls — ready for ride-hailing companies by 2021.
Others are also working on self-driving commercial vehicles.
Earlier this year, 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 a package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, punch a code into the locker’s keypad and remove the package.
This is an area that is ripe for automation. Last mile, or local package delivery, is growing at 8 percent annually globally, twice as fast as the trucking market, according to McKinsey & Company.
Last month Uber jumped into autonomous trucking by purchasing autonomous truck startup Otto. Uber also is exploring how to transform into a robotic taxi service. Earlier this month it started to use a handful of self-driving cars for ride hailing in Pittsburgh. For now, the cars still have a driver ready to take control in an emergency.
Uber has an agreement to jointly invest $300 million with Volvo to develop self-driving technology. This has the potential for huge cost savings. Analysts estimates about half the cost of a ride-sharing tip goes to paying the driver.
Advanced technology, including autonomous driving systems, platooning and the eventual electrification of trucking has the potential to reduce trucking costs by up to a 75 percent, according to a recent report by Ravi Shanker, the freight transportation analyst at Morgan Stanley Research.
Carriers will be able to run trucks for longer periods without having to park for driver rest periods, providing significant productivity gains.
McKinsey & Company projects that by 2025, and least one of every three new heavy trucks will have high-level automation technology that eliminates the need for a full-time driver. Those and other technologies will drastically reduce costs for trucking companies across the spectrum while increasing demand for new trucks.
“Little by little, the rules of the game will change for the industry,” said Matthias Kässer, automotive expert and a co-author of a McKinsey study on autonomous trucking and delivery.
He said 30 percent to 40 percent of the total cost of ownership for a heavy truck is due to the driver. That rises to 60 percent for light commercial, or delivery, vehicles, he said.
“Whether this additional value will benefit manufacturers, logistics providers, or – in the form of lower delivery costs – customers is still up in the air,” Kässer said.
But the business case will be fueled by consumers, he said, with 72 percent saying in a recent survey that they would welcome self-driving delivery vehicles if they would lower delivery costs.
Trucks.com editor Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.