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Google's self driving car project. Photo via Google.
Google’s self driving car project. Photo via Google.

President Obama devoted part of his final State of the Union address to “how we can make technology work for us.”

On Thursday, the Obama administration took the statement in a new direction with a wide-sweeping plan to usher self-driving cars onto American roads, with the ultimate goal of reducing auto-related deaths on the nation’s roads. About 30,000 people die each year in the U.S. in auto accidents.

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the plan will include an investment of nearly $4 billion over 10 years. This investment will go towards real-world pilot projects, which will deploy automated cars in “designated corridors” around the country.  In plain English, the government will work with industry leaders to make American infrastructure ready for self-driving cars.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said Foxx.

The Department of Transportation(DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Administration(HTSA) are also throwing their support behind automated vehicles. They are both working towards policy changes that will ensure self-driving cars are not only safe, but legal. Both agencies focused their policy updates on reducing roadblocks for tech that increases “safety, mobility, and sustainability” on the roads.

This new policy change is a far cry from the reaction of the California DMV, which is proposing to ban automated vehicles in the state.

One of the DOT’s commitments for 2016 is creating a consistent policy state-to-state, but they may have their work cut out for them.

Foxx also encouraged collaboration between manufacturers and government to ease the journey from R&D to the highway. He encouraged manufacturers to come forward with concerns about rules and regulations, so that misinterpretation doesn’t slow innovation.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this month, nearly every major car manufacturer touted their self-driving vehicle technology. But the concept of autonomous vehicles hitting the roadways is still a long way off.

“In truth, we are a long way from the finish line of fully autonomous cars,” said Gil Pratt, a former MIT professor and program manager at DARPA who leads the Toyota Research Institute, a $1 billion effort to design and build self-driving cars.

The DOT’s commitments, announced by Foxx, include a promise to adjust policy for future tech developments. They also include a promise to revisit existing policy once self-driving cars are proven to be safer than a human driver. In other words: say goodbye to your steering wheel!

Here’s the full release from the DOT:

DETROIT – In his last State of the Union address, President Obama signaled his intent to invest in a 21st century transportation system. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx today revealed part of the president’s proposal: a 10-year, nearly $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects.

Secretary Foxx also announced that the U.S. Department of Transportation is removing potential roadblocks to the integration of innovative, transformational automotive technology that can significantly improve safety, mobility, and sustainability. Secretary Foxx made the announcement at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, where he was joined by leaders in technology, executives of traditional auto manufacturers, and newcomers to the industry.

“We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people,” said Secretary Foxx. “Today’s actions and those we will pursue in the coming months will provide the foundation and the path forward for manufacturers, state officials, and consumers to use new technologies and achieve their full safety potential.”

The President’s FY17 budget proposal would provide nearly $4 billion over 10 years for pilot programs to test connected vehicle systems in designated corridors throughout the country, and work with industry leaders to ensure a common multistate framework for connected and autonomous vehicles.

Secretary Foxx also unveiled policy guidance that updates the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) 2013 preliminary policy statement on autonomous vehicles. The new guidance, released today, reflects the reality that the widespread deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is now feasible.

“NHTSA is using all of its available tools to accelerate the deployment of technologies that can eliminate 94 percent of fatal crashes involving human error,” said NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind. “We will work with state partners toward creating a consistent national policy on these innovations, provide options now and into the future for manufacturers seeking to deploy autonomous vehicles, and keep our safety mission paramount at every stage.”

DOT is committing to the following milestones in 2016:

Within six months, NHTSA will work with industry and other stakeholders to develop guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles, providing a common understanding of the performance characteristics necessary for fully autonomous vehicles and the testing and analysis methods needed to assess them.

Within six months, NHTSA will work with state partners, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, and other stakeholders to develop a model state policy on automated vehicles that offers a path to consistent national policy.

Secretary Foxx encouraged manufacturers to submit rule interpretation requests where appropriate to help enable technology innovation. For example, NHTSA responded to an interpretation request from BMW confirming that the company’s remote self-parking system meets federal safety standards. Click here to read this interpretation.

When interpretation authority is not sufficient, Secretary Foxx further encouraged manufacturers to submit requests for use of the agency’s exemption authority to allow the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. Exemption authority allows NHTSA to enable the deployment of up to 2,500 vehicles for up to two years if the agency determines that an exemption would ease development of new safety features.

DOT and NHTSA will develop the new tools necessary for this new era of vehicle safety and mobility, and will consider seeking new authorities when they are necessary to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when they are demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.
Under Secretary Foxx’s leadership, the Department has been working to transform government for the 21st century, harnessing innovation and technology that will improve people’s lives. In 2015, Secretary Foxx refocused the national dialogue about the future needs of our transportation infrastructure by releasing Beyond Traffic, a report examining the challenges facing America’s infrastructure over the next three decades. This draft framework has already influenced decisions by elected officials, planners, and stakeholders nationwide.

Secretary Foxx has also energized DOT’s embrace of innovation to help solve these challenges. In December 2015, the Secretary launched the Smart City Challenge, a national competition to implement bold, data-driven ideas that make transportation safer, easier, and more reliable in that city. He also worked to accelerate the Department’s efforts to incorporate vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication technology into new vehicles.

More information on the President’s budget proposal will be forthcoming.

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