The Department of Transportation intends to move forward on revising federal auto safety guidelines to reflect the arrival of self-driving cars, according to updated guidance released Thursday.
While existing standards effectively prohibit the commercialization of autonomous vehicles, some of which wouldn't include parts such as a steering wheel or pedals, the changes will seek to better "accommodate rapid technological innovation," the department said.
Going forward, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations won't assume that the "driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily present onboard a commercial vehicle during its operation," the document states.
An agency official said the changes are "complementary with congressional efforts." While the House has passed its own self-driving car bill, a Senate measure is blocked amid opposition from several members. The chamber's Commerce Committee has met with key stakeholders this week in the hopes of agreeing on a standalone compromise measure that could be moved on the Senate floor.
"We think that we can make great progress with the tools that we have now," the transportation official told reporters. Lawmakers, companies and others have warned that without a federal framework in place, investment could flow to countries such as China that are also working aggressively to develop the technology.
The Transportation Department's guideline revisions "will drive the autonomous vehicle industry to innovate while maintaining public safety,” Carl Szabo, vice president at NetChoice, a trade association for e-commerce businesses, wrote in a statement.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said it would review the document "to ensure that safety continues to be the number one priority when it comes to the development, testing, and deployment of such technologies."
The Transportation Department suggested that its performance standards could be used to help validate the safety of autonomous cars, using methods such as a "sophisticated obstacle-course" that would include both everyday driving scenarios and atypical weather, traffic and road conditions.
Additionally, the agency will remove designations made by former President Barack Obama that allowed certain cities to receive federal funding for the testing of self-driving cars, part of an effort to broaden the potential pool of candidates.
"These designations will have no effect — positive or negative — going forward on any decisions the department may make regarding federal support or recognition of research, pilot or demonstration projects, or other developmental activities related to automated vehicle technologies," the document says.
The Transportation Department will also conduct a study to examine the workforce impacts of autonomous technology. A prior report found that self-driving cars would increase the unemployment rate by 0.06 to .013 percent by 2050, while automation more broadly could contribute to a loss of 73 million jobs by 2030.
The agency will soon release for public comment a proposal to update the process by which carmakers apply for exemptions from the vehicle safety standards. General Motors is still awaiting a decision from its January request to allow it to deploy driverless cars -- without a steering wheel or gas pedals -- in 2019.
In a statement, the company said the Transportation Department's latest move provides continued guidance to manufacturers, but urged Congress to pass legislation to "allow the full deployment of self-driving vehicles."
Despite the lack of a clear regulatory framework, however, investment in autonomous technology continues unabated. On Wednesday, Honda announced a $2.75 billion investment in Cruise, GM's self-driving subsidiary, bringing its total valuation to $14.6 billion.
That follows previous partnerships between GM and Lyft, as well as Fiat Chrysler and Waymo, Google-parent company Alphabet's self-driving unit. Toyota previously invested $500 million in Uber's autonomous driving efforts.
The collaborations have industry analysts questioning whether Ford will seek to pursue partnerships similar to those of its competitors.
“The more pieces GM puts together and the more capital is accumulated behind Cruise, the more investors are wondering the path Ford will take,” Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas wrote in a note on Wednesday. “While we see room for several winners in this market, it seems from the outside, at least, that GM is several steps ahead of Ford.”
A Ford spokesman said the company has "always been open to partnerships and outside investment" and is in "active talks with various entities that have expressed interest to us."
The carmaker aims to deploy its mass-market self-driving vehicle for ride hailing and deliveries in cities in 2021.
"To build a viable, profitable and scalable autonomous vehicle business, there needs to be a much broader focus than just developing the vehicle and technology," the spokesman added in an emailed statement. "We’re not concerned with making marketing claims or being in a race for the first autonomous car on the road."
While there will be inherent value in being the first company to market with the potentially revolutionary technology, most experts say building public trust in self-driving cars will be slow and deployment could take years.
Morgan Stanley's Jonas estimated that fully autonomous vehicles will represent just 0.3 percent of all U.S. miles traveled by 2030.