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Department of Transportation updates guidance for self-driving vehicles

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Department of Transportation updates guidance for self-driving vehicles

The U.S. Department of Transportation released updated guidance for self-driving vehicles Oct. 4 as it seeks to cover more types of vehicles at a time when companies are expanding development of automated driving systems.

The big difference between the new guidance outlined in a document entitled "Preparing for the Future of Transportation: Automated Vehicles 3.0," and the version released in September 2017 is that the department is moving forward with the assumption that a human is not required to control a vehicle.

The guidance also incorporates "all modes" of transportation, not just cars, according to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Automated commercial trucks, buses and trains will also be discussed in terms of safety, development and deployment and covered by the updated guidance.

The agency is encouraging the exploration of other modes of transportation that will interact with automated vehicles. For example, how a self-driving car interacts with a railroad crossing, and how port facilities could benefit from automated commercial trucks. Commercial vehicle drivers sometimes must wait in slow-moving queues for hours at the busiest ports, according to the guidance.

The 80-page document was revealed during a joint press conference in Washington, D.C., that included the DOT and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA.

The DOT is focusing on three areas, Chao said, including guidance for automated-vehicle development across all modes that describes the department's approach to managing risk along with full commercial integration of automated-vehicle technology, reducing policy uncertainties and clarifying roles to help avoid a conflicted patchwork of regulations that hamper innovation, and outlining a process for working with the department to create a path forward.

Chao said that while self-driving technology has the potential to increase productivity, create jobs and save lives, it still hasn't won public acceptance.

"Nearly three quarters of American drivers report they're afraid, they're anxious to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle," Chao said. "That's why I have consistently challenged high-tech companies to step up and address the public's legitimate concerns about the safety, security and privacy of this new technology."

That being said, Chao said the department is working with automakers and tech companies to allow innovation to continue.

The highway traffic safety administration also issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to seek public comment and feedback on designing a national pilot program "to facilitate, monitor and learn from the testing and development" of emerging advanced-driving technologies, according to the document.

The agency is looking for comments related to safety research, including how to safely test and deploy vehicles with high and fully automated systems, how to use existing regulations to implement the pilot program, and if additional measures are needed to test vehicles that might not comply with existing safety standards because they lack controls from human drivers.

Chao said more than 37,000 people died in motor-vehicle crashes in 2017, according to a DOT study.

"Historically, 94% of accidents occur because of human error," she said, emphasizing that automated vehicles could increase safety on the roads.

In a second advanced notice for proposed rulemaking, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will seek to identify regulatory gaps with automated vehicles, specifically for inspection, repair and maintenance.

The DOT also announced that it no longer recognizes the designations of 10 automated-vehicle proving grounds that were named by the agency in January 2017.

These sites encouraged testing and information sharing around automated vehicle technologies, but the updated guidance from the department stated it supports testing and development throughout the country "with as few barriers as needed for safety."

The DOT no longer wants to "favor particular automated-vehicle proving grounds over others," according to the guidance.

Heidi King, deputy administrator of the NHTSA, said the administration is seeking public comments on a national pilot research program to facilitate the safe testing and deployment of vehicles with advanced driving systems.

"NHTSA expects to learn more about the progress of automated driving system testing," King said. "This collaboration ... could aid research and development and safety standards for advanced vehicle-safety technologies."