Self-driving car interior concept where front seats could turn backward.

Last month, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx issued a policy that will increase the role of federal officials to “ensure that safety is appropriately addressed in the front end of development.”  He detailed 15 points that automakers would need to comply with such as how and where the vehicles operate, how testing will be validated, how privacy will be protected, hacking prevention, data collection, and more.

“As technology races forward, the government could sit back and play catch-up down the road, or we can keep pace with these developments, working to protect public safety while allowing innovation to flourish,” Foxx said to reporters.

It’s an issue both state officials and manufacturers have been long grappling with.  Next, they await these plans in greater detail.

Mark Rosekind, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator said, “We are looking at what type of information related to events, incidents, crashes, et cetera, need to be recorded, and we’re actually looking at ways for that information to be shared so that you would provide a way for all autonomous vehicles to learn from those issues.”

Up until now, drivers of vehicles have been regulated by states as they issue licenses, require registration and maintenance standards while the federal government is responsible for safety issues such as seat belts, recalls, backup cameras and air bags.  This leaves the question of “who’s in charge” if the federal government takes an expanded role.

If there is no “driver” in the car, does that leave just the automaker to be regulated on a federal level?

“Part of what we’re doing with this policy is saying when the software is operating the vehicle, that is an area where we intend to regulate,” Foxx said. “When a human being is operating that vehicle, the conventional rules of state law would apply.”

In a concept Foxx calls “pre-market approval”, federal authorities would engage auto manufacturers, members of Congress and other policymakers regarding measurements of vehicle safety.

“You have to remember that the United States’ approach to automobile-safety regulation is a self-certification approach, so automobiles today are supposed to meet our federal motor-vehicle-safety standards [and] the manufacturers self-certify that they do. We’re putting out the idea that in this emerging arena, there should be conversation about pre-market approval, the idea that additional authorities could be given to NHTSA to evaluate a technology and to essentially have to approve its use before it’s put on the marketplace,” Foxx said.

Driverless vehicles are already being tested in states such as California, Nevada, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Raj Rajkumar, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and at the forefront of the emerging driverless car, says “this could be a nightmare, if you drive across a state border in an autonomous vehicle.”

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed that “safety certifications from both the manufacturer and a third-party testing organization” be required which would certify the vehicle safe for the public but some automakers don’t like the idea.

Michigan’s Senate has already passed legislation to allow self-driving cars on the road.  The legislation would also allow “on-demand, automated” networks such as Uber and Lyft (and others) to operate throughout the state and “prohibit a local unit of government from imposing a fee, registration, franchise, or regulation on an on-demand automated motor vehicle network through December 31, 2022.”

Automakers, however, want state governments to hold off on regulations for now.

Bryant Walker Smith, law professor at University of South Carolina says, “some companies will conclude that existing law is perfectly flexible and accommodating for whatever they want to do. Some companies may be more conservative and want [legal] structures upfront. Developers of these systems will not want any legislation until they are pretty sure what technologies they are going to deploy and at that point they will have crafted proposed regimes that are most conducive to their particular vision, and will enthusiastically push for adoption of those particular regimes.” Smith also heads the Emerging Technology Law Committee of the Transportation Research Board.

John Zimmer, president and co-founder of Lyft, sees a rollout more like this, “at first, fully autonomous cars will have a long list of restrictions. They will only travel at low speeds, they will avoid certain weather conditions, and there will be specific intersections and roads that they will need to navigate around. Hypothetically, Lyft could initially have a fleet of autonomous cars that completes rides under 25 miles per hour on flat, dry roads. Then, we could upgrade the fleet to handle rides under those same conditions, but at 35 miles per hour. And so on and so on, until every kind of trip can be completed by an autonomous car.”

Google, who is currently testing vehicles without steering wheels or floor pedals, argues “we believe that fully autonomous technology will most likely be deployed incrementally, starting with locations that have distinct geographic, weather, roadway type, and other features, and progress to general deployment. We believe that our fully self­-driving vehicles should be able to successfully demonstrate competency in a variety of reasonably foreseeable traffic situations,” via comments to the federal government.

Clearly, there are a wide range of views.  How aggressive should state and federal governments be in overseeing these categories?

The Department of Transportation is currently calling Foxx’s document as “guidance” as there are a myriad of technological advances ahead.

Premature regulation of technology could inhibit development and with the possibility of an official federal ruling taking five years or more, could leave regulations outdated.

Nevertheless, our technological revolution continues to take enormous leaps ahead, including the auto industry.