Both legacy automakers and disruptive technology companies were quick to praise the Obama administration Thursday for its proposal to encourage the development of self-driving cars, especially for the promise to present a model policy for states to avoid a regulatory patchwork.
"[This is] definitely a positive announcement," John Krafcik, the head of Google's self-driving car program, told reporters. "We're also very excited that there's clearly an indication of the potential safety benefits associated with the technology. That's what is driving our mission at Google, and it's wonderful to have that validation from the secretary in Washington today."
"Definitely a positive announcement."
Krafcik was referring to the acknowledgement from National Highway Traffic Safety administrator Mark Rosekind that driverless cars, as well as other technologies, had the potential to eliminate the 94 percent of traffic accidents involving human error.
The Department of Transportation said it would commit $4 billion over 10 years to support the development of self-driving cars. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx invited those working on autonomous vehicle technology to work with the White House on identifying any laws that could impede innovation, as well as a set of rules that would govern driverless cars out on the road. Krafcik said Google would be among those to offer their advice.
"I've got a lot of sympathy for the states as they try and put together the guidelines that would promote autonomous driving," he said. "It's pretty difficult. It's difficult for California, it's difficult for Michigan, it's difficult for Louisiana. And now what we've heard today is that there will be a cooperative effort with the federal government engaged."
"It's difficult for California, it's difficult for Michigan, it's difficult for Louisiana."
Google has already run up against problems with the lack of an overarching set of rules from the federal government. Recently, California's Department of Motor Vehicles ruled that self-driving vehicles would still need to have a human driver behind the wheel, in case of software malfunction. This would quash Google's vision of fully autonomous cars that could be summoned with the touch of a smartphone.
The Department of Transportation, though, said it supports that vision, so long as it meets an "equivalent or higher level of safety than is now available." Foxx vowed to have a final plan ready in six months, which Krafcik called "terrific." Other firms involved in the development of autonomous cars also chimed in with praise.
"Strides in mobility will not be achieved by any one person, company, or government body," said Curt Magleby, VP of government relations at Ford. "Without the public and private sector working together to establish the framework that will govern the future of mobility, there will be a patchwork of regulations that create confusion and stand in the way of innovation and the benefits it will deliver."
Vows to work with government regulators
Lyft, the app-based ride-hail service that has partnered with General Motors in developing a fleet of driverless cars-for-hire, said it was "optimistic" about the upcoming plan. And the Intelligent Transportation Society of America, an advocacy groups, said the announcement could help "bring us closer to our goal of zero deaths on America's roads."
The acknowledgement from the White House that self-driving cars will play an important role in the future is a sign that the auto industry is moving further from mechanical engineering and closer to technology, said Jeffrey Miller, associate professor of engineering practice at the University of Southern California.
"Technology companies have jumped on this trend by providing their services and expertise, and many auto manufacturers are embracing that," he said. "Other companies, such as Tesla and Mercedes, are preferring to do things themselves instead of partnering with technology companies. These are two different approaches, and they both seem to be working at this point."