Looking to encourage the nascent autonomous car industry -- and ensure safety without overregulation -- the federal government for the first time released a set of guidelines for self-driving cars.
The guidelines were unveiled on Sept. 18 and include a 15-point safety assessment, encourage states to adopt uniform laws governing the technology, and address some privacy concerns, according to The New York Times.
It's the strongest indication yet the federal government is embracing autonomous vehicle technology and the benefits that come with it -- including safer roads, less congestion and eliminating driver error.
President Barack Obama himself wrote an editorial about self-driving cars, published Sept. 19 in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pittsburgh is an important city for the autonomous vehicle industry because it's home to several prominent engineering schools, and because ride-hailing company Uber chose it as a testing ground for its autonomous ride service.
In 2015 more than 35,000 Americans died in car crashes, the president noted, citing a figure that's been widely quoted in recent months -- 94 percent of fatal crashes are caused by human error or choice, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Self-driving vehicle technology has "the potential to save tens of thousands of lives each year," Obama wrote. The vehicles could also change the lives of people who cannot drive -- including the elderly and disabled -- for the better.
But, Obama wrote, the federal government must take a leadership role in making sure the technology has been sufficiently tested and fine-tuned before driverless cars become the norm.
"Safer, more accessible driving. Less congested, less polluted roads," Obama wrote. "That’s what harnessing technology for good can look like. But we have to get it right. Americans deserve to know they’ll be safe today even as we develop and deploy the technologies of tomorrow."
The federal government is striking the right balance between safety and regulation, said Karl Brauer, a senior editor at Kelley Blue Book.
“We are in this weird transition,” Brauer told The New York Times. “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 earned a thumbs-up from automakers like Ford and Tesla, as well as firms like Google and Uber that are leading research into the technology.
Rather than a patchwork of state laws governing the use of driverless cars, the new guidelines "will help establish the basis for a national framework that enables the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles," the Ford company wrote in a statement.