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The US Department of Transportation is trying to fix self-driving rules before they break

And the President wants to put $4 billion into connected car programs over the next decade

US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx took to the Detroit Auto Show today to announce a series of initiatives around autonomous driving, seemingly designed to ease concerns that overly restrictive regulations would inhibit automakers and suppliers from effectively testing and producing self-driving cars. Participants in the press conference today include GM, Ford, Tesla, Volvo, Fiat Chrysler, Delphi (which is working on self-driving components for a number of major automakers), and Google.

Foxx says that within six months, his agency will work with states, manufacturers, and others to develop a "model" state policy for autonomous cars with the goal of creating a consistent national policy. This has become a hot-button topic as of late — different rules for self-driving cars in different states — to the point where Volvo issued a press release about it. "The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 US states," Volvo Cars CEO Håkan Samuelsson said last October. It seems plausible that other automakers expressed some of the same concerns, and Foxx's move appears to be a direct response. The new guidance is an update of rules first put in place in 2013.

A pathway to truly driverless cars

The DOT is also "encouraging" automakers to ask for clarifications of existing rules, many of which don't currently mesh well with autonomous tech. Interestingly, Foxx has announced that BMW's self-parking system, which is currently disabled in the US version of the new 7 Series, is compliant with federal safety standards — a sign that the system might be enabled in BMW's future vehicles. Tesla just rolled out its self-parking system in the US several days ago, so there are clearly some outstanding disagreements about what the rules permit.

anthony foxx

The policies are part of a $4 billion proposal in President Obama's fiscal 2017 budget — which will be unveiled in full on February 9th — laying out a decade's worth of pilot programs to test (and create regulations around) connected and autonomous car technologies. Exact details of those pilots programs, however, aren't yet available.

But this may be the biggest part of today's announcement:

DOT and NHTSA will develop the new tools necessary for this new era of vehicle safety and mobility, and will seek new authorities when they are necessary to ensure that fully autonomous vehicles, including those designed without a human driver in mind, are deployable in large numbers when demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available.

In other words, DOT is pushing for ways to permit legitimately driverless cars on the road — the kind that could be summoned to your doorstep without someone behind the wheel. That's huge, especially in light of unusually restrictive rules that California just put in place that have ruffled Google's feathers. The "demonstrated to provide an equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available" part is just as big, though — and depending on the level of proof DOT asks for, automakers could be many miles away from being able to scientifically demonstrate that safety, especially in light of a new Backchannel report that shows just how often today's Google car test drivers must disengage the self-driving system.

"We don't public test until we're safe. End of story."

But not every automaker is terribly concerned about self-driving regulations. In an interview earlier this week with The Verge, Mark Reuss, GM's Executive VP of Global Product Development, brushed off the concerns about restrictions — at least during the testing phase. "It doesn't affect us, because the way we've set up our development, we have the world's largest and most capable proving grounds right here," Reuss said, referring to the company's Milford Proving Grounds outside Detroit. "We don't public test until we're safe. End of story."

GM's crosstown rival Ford, on the other hand, will likely be more interested in the short-term outcome: the company just announced last week at CES that it's tripling the size of its autonomous testing fleet, and some of those vehicles are destined for California and its newly restrictive statewide rules.