Automated cars have the backing of President Barack Obama, who's signed off on what's largely been a hands-off approach to regulating the burgeoning industry, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said.
The U.S. is allowing road trials by the likes of Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. because real-world testing is critical to the technology's acceptance, and for companies and regulators to understand its potential, Foxx said in an interview Saturday. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last week released guidelines for the industry that stopped short of offering prescriptive rules that car and tech companies have to follow.
"The president is a techie at heart," Fox said in Karuizawa, Japan, where Foxx was attending a meeting of G7 transport ministers. Foxx said Obama has given him "wide latitude" in figuring out "how to improve mobility, raise the level of safety and create more choice and equity in how transportation is accessible to people."
The Obama administration's embrace of the technology stands in contrast with the approach taken by China, which surpassed the U.S. as the world's largest auto market in 2009. The government warned automakers in July against testing their self-driving vehicles before regulations are finalized.
That's been a setback to companies including Chongqing Changan Automobile Co., Baidu Inc. and Zhejiang Geely Holding Group Co., which have urged China's government to speed up the its rule-making process.
"Real-world testing will teach manufacturers as well as us regulators more about what works well and what doesn't work well" and is a "critical part of the path to autonomous vehicle acceptance," Foxx said. "We also believe that can be done with a high relative level of safety."
Alphabet's Google self-driving car program racked up about 1.97 million miles of autonomous-mode testing near its Mountain View, California, headquarters and three other U.S. cities through August. Uber last month started allowing customers in downtown Pittsburgh to summon Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicles capable of automated driving.
The technology hasn't entirely escaped scrutiny. NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety board are investigating a May 7 fatal crash involving Tesla Motors Inc.'s Autopilot driver-assist system. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk has said a software update introduced this month may have been able to prevent the death of the driver.
Highway fatalities climbed by 7.2 percent, the highest one-year increase in almost half a century, to 35,092 last year, according to the Transportation Department.
While NHTSA has emphasized the potential of automated vehicles, the hands-off approach may not stay for good. NHTSA said within its guidelines last week that it may eventually seek authority for a pre-market approval system, in which the regulator would have to sign off on the safety of automated vehicles before they're sold.
This would be a "wholesale structural change" from the existing regulatory approach, in which automakers self-certify the safety of their cars, the agency said.
"There's obviously an issue around acceptance and trusting the technology, and one way perhaps that the confidence level can be increased is by having more rigor on the front end of a product coming into the marketplace," Foxx said. "It's certainly a question we felt strongly enough needed to be placed in the document."
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