The Federal Government Puts the Brakes on Driverless Cars

Toyota Motor Company displayed its prototype driverless car during the preview of 2013 Consumer Electronics Show on January 7 in Las Vegas Photograph by Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images

Next week, a group of would-be auto executives will head to Detroit for an unusual industry gathering: the Driverless Car Summit, an annual meeting of robot-car makers. The vehicles, which use sensors and other technologies to navigate without relying on human drivers, are still in test-drive mode. Their biggest backer is Google, which has spent millions designing and testing them on California’s roads. Google Chief Executive Larry Page says the cars will “change our lives” because passengers, freed from having to steer through traffic, will be able to do other things on their daily commute. Driverless cars could also be safer, he says, because they take human error out of the equation. In theory, you could ride drunk and still make it home OK.

That’s still a ways away. While Nevada, California, and Florida have recently passed laws allowing limited testing of self-driving vehicles, federal regulators haven’t approved them for general use. On Thursday, the Obama Administration weighed in for the first time. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommended that states prohibit manufacturers from selling driverless cars to the general public, except for testing purposes.

Regulators don’t think the cars are ready for mass market, but they’re writing rules to help get them there. For the first time, the federal government published guidelines spelling out four categories of automation, ranging from a little to a lot. Category 1 is a car that uses some automated technologies—sensing when a vehicle alongside it is changing lanes. Category 4 is a fully automated car that can be piloted remotely, like a drone. The guidelines are voluntary, but if states adopt them, the federal government’s move could start the process of standardizing rules for driverless cars across the U.S.

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