With the transportation industry speeding toward the reality of autonomous vehicles sharing U.S. roads, the government is determined to catch up and remove whatever obstacles have been placed in the technology’s way.

According to statements by U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao last month at the North American International Auto Show at the Cobo Center in Detroit, a new tech-neutral and flexible approach to Obama-era regulations will aim to remove "unnecessary obstacles" to the development of self-driving cars and commercial vehicles.

New guidelines, eased regs

Last month, according to a Secretary Chao, the Trump administration plans to revise and present guidelines for self-driving vehicles this summer. The government is hoping to rewrite regulations that have been accused of posing legal barriers to the autonomous vehicle industry.

According to Chao, the guidelines would apply to "barriers to the safe integration of autonomous technology for motor carriers, transit, trucks, infrastructure and other modes."

This is in response to companies such as Google parent company Alphabet Inc., Toyota and General Motors, among others, who are aggressively pursuing autonomous vehicle technology. The hope from the industry is that Congress can intervene and remove perceived barriers in the race to self-driving cars.

At the moment, there’s legislation in Congress to speed the introduction of self-driving cars; however, it does not include commercial trucks. As a result, federal regulators are moving forward with steps toward the development of broader autonomous transportation guidelines including buses, trucks and other ground-based forms of transport.

To create what Chao has called Federal Automated Vehicle Policy 3.0, three separate notices will be filed in the Federal Register by various U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) agencies. Regulators will then gather input from the developers of automated vehicles, the public, as well as other parties with interest in the industry.

Roads and bridges

One of the aforementioned notices to be filed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will focus on identifying regulations that could possibly impede the testing and commercialization of driverless vehicles, and specifically vehicles that do not have the capacity for, nor need, human drivers. These will be vehicles developed without steering wheels, accelerators and brake pedals.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) will issue another notice that will focus on determining what is needed from our country’s infrastructure, roads and bridges to help support and nurture the still growing autonomous vehicle tech.

According to a Commercial Carrier Journal article, "FHWA is looking for feedback on roadway needs, such as lane markings, signage and signals, as well as the so-called digital infrastructure needed to enable vehicle-to-infrastructure communication. The agency is also seeking feedback on cybersecurity concerns, states’ and localities’ concerns about investment and necessary research for infrastructure needs relative to deployment of autonomous vehicles."

Public pushback

Not everyone is onboard with the rapid progression of the autonomous vehicle industry. In fact, some highway safety advocates are asking that legislators slow things down a bit while safety measures are assured and settled.

According to a Transport Topics article, "Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is calling on Congress and federal officials to strengthen safety regulations related to autonomous vehicle technology following the release of a public opinion poll, which shows that Americans – regardless of age, political preferences or geographic locations – want increased safeguards."

Approximately 64 percent of survey responders stated that they felt concerned with sharing highways with vehicles that drive themselves, while 73 percent want DOT to create and strengthen autonomous vehicle safety standards.

In a Jan. 12 media conference call, Joan Claybrook, a former administrator with the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration during the Carter administration said, "It is critical that the U.S. Department of Transportation implement a statutory mandate and issue vehicle safety standards for autonomous cars.…The last thing the public wants is to have DOT standing on the sidelines, allowing auto and tech companies to build and sell cars that have new technologies that do not have to meet minimum government requirements."

However, Secretary Chao’s recent statements of easing regulations seem to conflict with this sentiment.

Industry excitement

Despite the apparent conflicting plans between DOT and parts of the public, one thing is for sure: The automotive industry is fully committed to furthering self-driving technology.

For example, Google’s self-driving arm, Waymo, is planning to buy "thousands" of additional Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans for its autonomous ride-hailing service. The recent announcement publically solidifies the companies’ dedication to the development of autonomous vehicles.

Aside from Google, Waymo and Chrysler, other companies have shown similar interest in planting their flags on the ground floor of the budding industry. Ford has expressed plans to buy two startups for the purpose of self-driving tech development. General Motors, for example, is seeking approval of Chevrolet Bolts withour steering wheels.

It is clear the industry is excited for the continued progress of self-driving auto innovation. Now it’s DOT’s chance to navigate through industry expectation, and find a middle ground between easing regulatory restrictions and heeding the public’s call for highway safety.