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New guidelines for self-driving cars

With the public increasingly asking who's making sure the technology behind self-driving cars is safe to be used in everyday traffic, the federal government is issuing new guidelines telling automakers, suppliers and tech firms what's expected as they develop and deploy automated vehicle technologies.

"We think this is a really critical step towards imposing and working towards the level of safety needed in this arena," said Anthony Foxx, U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

The guidelines will go into effect immediately and are designed to help manufacturers better understand the level of safety and performance semi- and fully-autonomous vehicles will need to achieve. Until now, it's been unclear what standards automated vehicles should meet. That's led to criticism the technology is moving faster than regulators.

So what exactly does the new policy on automated vehicles cover?

  • Vehicle performance guidance: This includes a 15 point safety assessment automakers are requested to sign which certifies the vehicles are ready for public roads.
  • Model for state policy: This clarifies what the Federal government expects for testing and operating autonomous vehicles and recommends areas where states can set their own policies.
  • Current Regulatory Tools: This outlines what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) can do as it interprets and enforces rules to ensure self-driving vehicles are safe.
  • New Tools and Authorities NHTSA could consider in the future: This includes proposals open for public comment, such as whether or not fully-autonomous vehicles should be required to have a steering wheel.

One point clear in the new policy: The federal government will recall self-driving cars if they are found to be unsafe. "Our enforcement authority stands strong and it will be used to its fullest effect, as needed," said Mark Rosekind, Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The new automated vehicle policy comes as a slew of self-driving test vehicles are logging millions of miles on public roads around the country. In California, at least 15 different companies have received permits to test autonomous-drive vehicles on public roads.

What started a few years ago with Google, has exploded into a race to develop self-driving vehicles. While most of the companies testing these vehicles are automakers, there are a growing number of tech firms researching the technology.

In late August, the Chinese internet firm Baidu became the latest company to be awarded a test-vehicle permit by the state of California.

The question of safety and self-driving cars became a hot topic this summer following the fatal crash in Florida where the driver of a Tesla Model S in autopilot mode slammed into a tractor trailer while driving on a rural highway. That crash sparked an investigation by NHTSA into the safety of Tesla's autopilot system. As that probe continues, Tesla has re-worked the technology behind its autopilot system and will soon send the updated software to thousands of Tesla Models. The company says the changes make autopilot more responsive to real world conditions and will prompt drivers to stay engaged behind the wheel.

Despite concerns the development of self-driving cars is moving too fast, the Federal government remains largely in favor of the technology. The Department of Transportation says more than 35,000 were killed in traffic crashes last year, with 94 percent of the fatalities caused by human error. Transportation Secretary Foxx said that number could be far lower if autonomous-drive vehicles become a common sight on American roads.

"I'm excited about the safety potential of autonomous vehicles and what this technology holds as its promise," said Secretary Foxx.