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Trump administration loosens Obama's guidelines for self-driving cars

A year after the U.S. Department of Transportation first announced guidelines for self-driving cars, an update of those parameters has been announced following months of scrutiny on how the technology is working on public roads.

In a widely expected move, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao continued with the Obama Administration’s set of guidelines, rather than enforceable rules, that has been the preferred path of companies testing autonomous driving technologies. The 36-page report, revealed Tuesday at a press conference in Michigan, was called Version 2.0 by Chao, with a Version 3.0 due next year.

Chao said the newest guidelines were meant to promote all forms of technology in the field and continue to allow companies and municipalities more freedom while a more structured approach is developed at the national level.

The Department of Transportation’s report came on the heels of the National Traffic Safety Board investigation findings from a fatal 2016 crash involving Tesla’s Level 2 system, stating more warnings and safeguards were needed to prevent incidents. The NTSB called out other automakers putting Level 2 systems in production vehicles to improve warnings for drivers. Its findings will go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for review.

And last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE Act that would put the federal government on the road to developing regulations for self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, the Senate has been working on its own bill that gives states more control over regulations. In the Transportation Department’s latest guidelines, states can still establish specific laws while more formal regulations are developed at the federal level, but are largely advised against it.

The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets — made up of Ford, Google, Lyft, Uber, and Volvo Cars’ self-driving efforts — praised the Department of Transportation’s announcement.

“The Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is pleased to see the Trump Administration continuing the work to bring fully self-driving vehicles to U.S. roads,” the coalition said in a statement. “With more than 35,000 motor vehicle deaths in 2015, the potential safety benefits of fully self-driving technology are too important to delay.”

The Department of Transportation’s looser approach has been praised by automakers and is in keeping with the Trump Administration’s hands-off attitude towards regulating the technology. But Chao also said Tuesday future infrastructure projects that incorporate new driving technologies may be given preference over others that do not.

Still, most groups were supportive of the direction of the Department’s self-driving plan and see little reason for concerns about testing impediments. Many are in favor of a more structured way of getting test vehicles on various public roads in different regions of the country.

“A policy framework that prioritizes safety, innovation, and U.S. leadership will play a critical role,” Doug Davis of Intel’s Automated Driving Group said in a statement. “To this end, I applaud the leadership of Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao for her focused work to revise the nation’s Automated Vehicle Guidelines for the safe testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles.”

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