U.S. Signals Backing for Self-Driving Cars
WASHINGTON — Federal auto safety regulators on Monday made it official: They are betting the nation’s highways will be safer with more cars driven by machines and not people.
In long-awaited guidelines for the booming industry of automated vehicles, the Obama administration promised strong safety oversight, but sent a clear signal to automakers that the door was wide open for driverless cars.
“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,” said Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, adding that highly automated vehicles “will save time, money and lives.”
“我们设想，在未来，大家可以把双手从方向盘上拿开，出行时不再心情不佳、疲惫不堪，而是能够休息或做其他的有用的事情，”国家经济委员会(National Economic Council)负责人杰弗里·齐恩茨(Jeffrey Zients)表示。他还称，高度自动化的车辆“将能节省时间和金钱，挽救生命。”
The statements were the most aggressive signal yet by federal regulators that they see automated car technology as a win for auto safety. Yet having officially endorsed the fast-evolving technology, regulators must now balance the commercial interests of companies including Tesla, Google and Uber with concerns over public safety, especially in light of recent crashes involving semiautonomous cars.
The policies unveiled on Monday were designed to walk that line. In a joint appearance, Mr. Zients and Anthony Foxx, secretary of the United States Department of Transportation, released the first guidelines, which outlined safety standards and encouraged uniform rules for the nascent technology. The instructions signaled to motorists that automated vehicles would not be a wild west where companies can try anything without oversight, but were also vague enough that automakers and technology companies would not fear over-regulation.
Driverless and semiautonomous cars have already hit the open roads, forcing regulators to keep up. Tesla, the electric-car maker, has sold tens of thousands of cars with a self-driving feature known as Autopilot. The company has been grappling with the fallout from the death in May of a Florida driver who had the car’s Autopilot on, as well as a report last week of another crash in China where the technology was turned on.
Tesla plans as soon as this week to download new software to its cars. The company’s chief executive, Elon Musk, has said the new software will include improvements to Autopilot that could have avoided the fatal accident in May.
Uber, the ride-hailing giant, began trials in Pittsburgh last week to let its most loyal customers order rides from driverless cars through their smartphone app. Google has been testing self-driving cars in its hometown Mountain View, Calif., and rivals including Apple are also exploring similar technology.
Last year, there were nearly 40,000 deaths in the United States from auto-related accidents, the deadliest for automotive-related deaths since 2008 and the largest year-over-year percentage increase in 50 years, according to the National Safety Council.
根据国家安全管理委员会(National Safety Council)公布的数据，去年，全美有近4万人死于与汽车有关的事故，是2008年以来死亡人数最高的一年，还取得了50年来最大的同比增幅。
Karl Brauer, senior editor at Kelley Blue Book, an auto research and valuation company, said the new guidelines strike a balance between ensuring safety as automakers develop self-driving cars and making sure the introduction of lifesaving technology is not delayed unnecessarily.
汽车调研与评估公司凯利蓝皮书(Kelley Blue Book)的高级编辑卡尔·布劳尔(Karl Brauer)表示，新出炉的指导意见权衡了两方面的需求：一方面是汽车厂商开发自动驾驶车辆时要保障安全，另一方面则是确保这种能挽救生命的技术不会在没必要的情况下推迟运用。
“We are in this weird transition,” Mr. Brauer said. “It’s a tough balance for the regulators. You want to get this technology out, but you don’t want to move too quickly.”
The new guidelines on Monday targeted four main areas. The Department of Transportation announced a 15-point safety standard for the design and development of autonomous vehicles; called for states to come up with uniform policies applying to driverless cars; clarified how current regulations can be applied to driverless cars; and opened the door for new regulations on the technology.
Currently, driverless cars face a patchwork of state regulations. In the last three years, about a dozen states have passed laws that specifically address testing of driverless vehicles. Most laws require a licensed driver to be in the car.
Mr. Foxx said states would continue to regulate the licensing of drivers and insurance. But Mr. Foxx affirmed the agency’s oversight over the software technology used in driverless cars.
“What we are trying to do is avoid a patchwork of state laws,” Mr. Foxx said.
The federal guidelines were welcomed by auto manufacturers. Ford, which is targeting fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 for ride-sharing, said in a statement that the guidance “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 complement this national framework.”
The government’s endorsement will speed up the rollout of autonomous cars, experts said, potentially within the next five years.
“It helps companies by providing some cover. If a car crashes, courts may look to these guidelines to help us determine what was reasonable and not,” said Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina.
“它为企业提供了某种保护，从而对它们有所帮助。假如出了车祸，法院可以参照这些指导意见来帮助我们认定什么是合理的，什么又不是，”南卡罗来纳大学(University of South Carolina)教授布莱恩特·沃克·史密斯(Bryant Walker Smith)说。
Large automakers in particular have made big strides in the technological development of driverless cars but have been wary of introducing those features too quickly without the backing of federal regulators.
“Big companies love certainty and targets that they need to aim for,” said Brad Templeton, a consultant and publisher of Robocars.com.